SAN SALVADOR — Defending his decision to disregard a U.N. pledge, President Alfredo Cristiani said Thursday that he delayed and modified a purge of the Salvadoran military to avoid unrest and protracted legal battles from targeted officers.
In an interview, Cristiani said his formula for conducting the purge--a plan that would delay the departure of some high-ranking officers and spare others--is final and not negotiable, even if the United Nations determines it violates peace accords.
"I made a decision, and I am happy with it," he said in a rare discussion of his thinking on the purge.
As a result of U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended this country's 12-year civil war, Cristiani had until Dec. 31 to rid the armed forces of 76 officers named by a civilian commission probing human rights abuses and other crimes. Twenty-seven more officers were to be transferred to less important posts.
In a Nov. 29 letter to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Cristiani pledged to meet the deadline. But instead he came up with a staggered timetable allowing some officers to remain in the armed forces for six months; it sends seven to overseas posts, while a core group of eight senior officers is untouched.
The failure to complete the full purge by the U.N. deadline triggered a wave of condemnation both at home and abroad. To counter the criticism, Cristiani has been meeting with diplomats, business leaders, politicians and others. In Thursday's interview with three American newspapers, Cristiani said flaws in the way the purge list was drawn up made it difficult to implement and would have led to a backlash.
He said he realizes his alternative plan may come under attack in Washington, where Congress has conditioned economic aid on fulfilling the peace accords, which last month brought a formal end to a war that claimed 75,000 lives.
He said that by delaying the departures of many officers and making the purge more palatable, he hoped to avoid unrest and violence. "It is also a means to prevent that individual officers that feel unjustly treated by the (purge) commission . . . will not be so mad that they will go out and do some wild thing like . . . kill one of the comandantes of the (former guerrilla faction), and then the whole country would be in a big mess," he said.
Although he emphasized there were no known threats of violence, he wanted to avoid having to use the army against itself.
He added, "There was never a problem of (a) coup, and I've never used that as an excuse. It's simply that you can be faced with unstable elements, people who in a situation like that could generate a lot of instability in the country, specifically at this time of the peace process."
After he began meeting with officers, Cristiani said he became convinced that many men who were to be fired would have been able to mount successful legal challenges to their dismissal, throwing the entire purge--and the peace process--into disarray. They would have had legal grounds, he said, because the commission assigned to review the armed forces and recommend dismissals did not give the accused a chance to defend themselves. The panel also did not explain why each officer was being cashiered.
The onetime guerrillas who have disarmed and formed a political party as part of the peace accords are not fighting the government over delays in the purge. According to sources familiar with both sides, Cristiani obtained their cooperation after offering to improve benefits allotted by the accords. Cristiani denied that senior military officers had pressured him to soften the purge.
The president, a member of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party, has declined to discuss many details of the purge. But sources said four officers were fired outright, 19 young officers were given scholarships to begin new careers and 38 older officers have six months to retire.