SAN SALVADOR — The U.S.-backed military arrested 11 people as rebel sympathizers after schoolchildren were forced to identify the voices on interview tapes taken from three European journalists, villagers said Tuesday.
According to sworn testimony presented at the Roman Catholic Church's legal aid office, troops under Col. Jesus Natividad Caseres, commander in the north central Chalatenago province, arrested seven people on Nov. 3 and four others on Nov. 5. Four of those arrested have since been released.
The incidents took place in the town of San Jose de las Flores, 40 miles northeast of the capital, where leftist rebels are active.
The town, abandoned several years ago in the civil war, was resettled earlier this year, but residents have complained repeatedly of army hostilities toward them.
Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, in his Sunday sermon, protested the arrests but did not mention the coercion of children or seizure of journalists' materials.
Caseres, in a telephone interview, acknowledged the arrests but denied that any recordings taken from foreign journalists were used, or that children were rounded up as informants.
'Pointed Out by People'
"Journalists' materials were not used," Caseres said. "Yes, we arrested some people, but they were pointed out by the people themselves, who want to live in peace."
Caseres said that four of those seized have been freed because their involvement with the rebels was deemed "low-level." He said the cases of the others will be studied, and they will either be freed or transferred to the capital.
But villagers and other witnesses have said that Caseres and his troops rounded up children in the school and made them identify voices on a tape taken from three European journalists who were arrested in neighboring Chalatenago on Sept. 22 after they interviewed people in San Jose and other towns.
"Col. Caseres went into the school . . . and made the teachers leave," said one written testimony. "The soldiers surrounded the school. They put on a cassette and asked them whose voices they were, and the children told them."
House Searches Told
Others testified to the same events and added that the soldiers also searched homes before they left the town. Seven people were arrested later that day, according to the witnesses.
According to the embassies of the reporters' nations, the military took their cassettes, notes and film before the journalists were turned over to the Treasury Police, who "suggested" that they leave the country.
The journalists were Michael Stuhrengerg of West Germany, Alain Herioshe of Belgium and Eric Venturini of France.