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US role in resettling Salvadoreans under fire. Critics say US money helps Army's fight against guerrillas

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Some 50 families are rebuilding their houses here under the shadow of the Guazapa volcano - site of the Salvadorean government's first resettlement project. The villagers, mostly poor farmers, left their homes here six years ago when the Army ordered them to leave. ``They told us to leave for 15 days, and it ended up being six years,'' one wrinkled elderly woman said.

There wasn't much to return to. Army operations and heavy bombing had left the hamlet's small church roofless and many homes destroyed. And thieves had taken what was left. Nevertheless, the villagers are happy to be home.

Most of the project's funds come from the United States Agency for International Development (AID), which characterizes the assistance as purely humanitarian.

AID's critics disagree. Many relief and development agencies say AID's shift from relief work to resettling people displaced by the civil war corresponds to a similar shift in the Army's strategy. The Army has removed people from areas of conflict, but now it is beginning to resettle the displaced in areas where fighting continues, though not necessarily in their original villages. Critics say AID's program is aimed more at helping the Army consolidate control of strategic parts of the countryside than helping the displaced return home.

AID ``told us the Army was making all the critical decisions in the resettlement program. AID told us the military will choose the projects, the locations, and even who the beneficiaries are,'' said a member of an agency approached by AID to participate in the program. AID ``said, in effect, that if we couldn't handle that, not to get on board,'' he added, asking not to be identified.

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