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Wave of Violence Threatens Salvadoran Vote

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UNITED Nations officials and human rights advocates are concerned that a spate of recent killings in El Salvador may threaten both the fairness of the March 20 elections there and the peace process itself.

The upcoming presidential, legislative, and mayoral vote is billed as the first fully democratic election in El Salvador's history. The vote caps a peace process set in motion two years ago by a UN-brokered accord. El Salvador has long been considered one of the UN's most exemplary peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts.

Yet over the last three months, more than 50 Salvadorans have been killed. Several high-ranking leaders of the left-wing Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), taking part in elections for the first time as a political party this March, are among the dead. On Dec. 13, masked men with assault rifles killed six peasants in a style reminiscent of right-wing death squads charged with killing thousands of Salvadorans in the early 1980s.

Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, from the rightist National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, admits crime is up, but says he doubts the violence is political or that there is a revival of death squad activity. After weeks of negotiations with UN officials, he agreed this month to set up a joint UN-government panel to investigate the killings.

``I believe the evidence is overwhelming that at least some of the killings were political assassinations,'' says Bill Goodfellow, director of the Center for International Policy in Washington, a research group focusing on United States and developing-world ties.

Whatever the outcome of the probe, no one is expecting the 12-year-old civil war to resume. Elections are expected to take place as scheduled with 800 UN monitors on hand. But the UN is concerned that the recent violence could intimidate voters and further delay peace reforms.

``I think the violence is a major blow to the peace process.... The whole thing could still be reversed,'' warns George Vickers, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, a rights group.

Major strides have been made toward national reconciliation. FMLN guerrillas have been disarmed and the size of the Army has been cut back. Yet promised land reforms and plans to replace the Army-controlled national police with a civilian force have lagged behind schedule. Units from the old force have been transferred into the new one without screening those accused of past rights abuse. The government's national police force is expanding rather than contracting.

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