SAN SALVADOR — Clad in a conservative gray suit and bulletproof vest, leftist leader Ruben Zamora returned Saturday to El Salvador after seven years in exile.
Zamora, whose Revolutionary Democratic Front is allied with guerrillas fighting to oust the U.S.-backed government, was greeted at the airport by several hundred supporters chanting, "We will win!"
"I have come back from seven years of exile to be next to the struggle of the people," Zamora, his fists raised, shouted from a platform on the back of a pickup truck.
"We will build a true democracy where political differences are decided through discussion and dialogue and not through assassinations and death squads."
Diplomats and political analysts have warned Zamora that he risks an assassination attempt from rightist extremists. He fled the country in 1980 after his brother was shot by hooded gunmen. Five leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic Front also were murdered that year.
Although political violence has dropped dramatically in recent years, there have been several death squad-style killings in the last few months since the signing of a regional peace plan. The most prominent was the Oct. 26 assassination of human rights activist Herbert Anaya.
Zamora, vice president of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, arrived from Mexico City with an international delegation that included two U.S. congressional aides and several journalists. He will have 24-hour security during his two-week stay, but no police or military protection.
Guillermo Ungo, president of the front, known by its Spanish acronym FDR, is expected to arrive from Mexico City on Monday with a delegation of European social democrats.
Key to War's End
Many political observers view the return of the exiled politicians as a key to ending the country's eight-year guerrilla war. If Zamora and Ungo are able to freely and openly organize leftist parties without encountering violence, it could signal the beginning of a new era in the political life of El Salvador, the analysts say.
But if they are killed or there is violence against their supporters, that would damage the international image of the U.S.-backed government and could trigger a political crisis here.
President Jose Napoleon Duarte and military officials have warned that Zamora and Ungo could be jailed if they act as a political arm of the guerrillas.
Duarte had said that in order to return, the political leaders must break their alliance with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels and accept the amnesty offered guerrillas under the Central American peace plan.
Zamora did neither of those, but he passed through Salvadoran immigration formalities without problems. Outside, he grabbed a Salvadoran flag that supporters waved over his head and said, "This is the only amnesty I accept." He then kissed the flag, clearly mocking Duarte, who kissed the American flag upon his arrival in Washington last month.
Work to 'Free' Country
Zamora said he would work "so our country can be free, independent and autonomous."
The politicians and rebels charge that the Duarte government is overly dependent on the United States. The U.S. government provides about $700 million a year in military and economic aid to El Salvador and keeps at least 55 military advisers in the country.
The Farabundo Marti guerrillas, meanwhile, were expected to announce a two-day national cease-fire in support of the returning political exiles. The guerrillas also will suspend military activities in the capital for five days, according to Zamora and other sources.
Some diplomats have said the return of the political leaders will lead to a split with the armed rebels. The exiles say the war is stalemated and they recently criticized the guerrillas for suspending cease-fire talks with the government.
But both fronts say their alliance remains intact.
'The American Dream'
"A split between the fronts is the American dream of the Reagan Administration," Ungo told a group of journalists in Mexico City Friday night. "They have been dreaming it for four years."
The U.S. Embassy and the Duarte government cite the return of Zamora as a sign that El Salvador is becoming a democracy.
Zamora, however, said there is not yet democracy, and that guerrilla pressure and, more recently, a Central American peace plan are responsible for the political opening that allows them to return.
"If the (guerrillas) were militarily defeated tomorrow, the possibilities for creating a democracy would be totally reduced. That's the reality," Zamora said.
Zamora, 45, is head of a small Social Christian party that broke from the Christian Democratic party in 1980 in protest of the Christian Democrats' participation in a ruling junta amid widespread killing by military and paramilitary death squads.