Suchitoto, El Salvador — The Salvadorean Armed Forces have used the Red Cross's humanitarian activities to locate and attack groups of displaced people in areas of conflict. This is the charge leveled at the armed forces, especially the Salvadorean Air Force, by two well-placed Western officials and by residents interviewed in the conflict zones.
Because of these attacks keyed to relief deliveries by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC suspended medical and food deliveries last December to most of the northern part of Cuscatlan Province and northeast- ern Cabanas Province.
The attacks began in September at a rate of roughly two to three per month. The latest occurred about four weeks ago in Pepeshtenango, one of the towns where the ICRC has continued to make deliveries.
The spokesperson in El Salvador for the ICRC, which provides $ 11 million of relief assistance to this country annually, has refused to comment on the suspension of medical and food deliveries.
But sources say some attacks have occurred on places where the ICRC made deliveries only hours after ICRC vehicles departed.
At other times, these sources add, ICRC vehicles have not been permitted to reach scheduled delivery points. People waiting for ICRC visits, these sources say, have then come under fire from Air Force helicopters and planes and even, at times, from ground troops. Those who say they were attacked contend they were not informed of any aid cancellation.
A spokesman for the Salvadorean Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked about charges that the military has used ICRC operations to locate bombing targets, said: ''I don't believe it. That's a lie.''
That spokesman, Capt. Luis Mario Aguilar Alfaro, also asserted that the people in the conflict zones are massas - groups of unarmed civilians who provide logistical support for the guerrillas and who often live in close proximity to guerrilla camps.
''The massas are the same as the guerrillas,'' he said, ''They are not innocent.''
The ICRC now gives the local Salvadorean military commanders 24 hours notice of its intention to visit a site in a conflict zone. Permission is often granted to the ICRC, only to be rescinded on the day the trip is to be made.
''In October, many people and I were waiting for a scheduled visit by the ICRC in the town of El Libano,'' says one former El Libano resident now living in the guerrilla-held town of La Escopeta, ''but the ICRC never arrived. We were instead attacked by planes from the Air Force. Five people were killed during the bombing and another five wounded.''
The scheduled ICRC trip to El Libano on Oct. 20, 1983, was prohibited by the Salvadorean armed forces that morning, according to a well-placed source in the capital, San Salvador.
The former El Libano resident also contends that civilians in the town of Pepeshtenango were attacked by the Air Force in February immediately after a visit by the ICRC to Pepeshtenango.
The well-placed source in the capital confirms a Feb. 22 visit by the ICRC to Pepeshtenango that was followed by a bombing attack.
''I was not in Pepeshtenango during the attack,'' this resident says, ''but walked through the town afterward and saw four dead.''
Displaced people in the town of Santa Cruz Michapa, who fled south to escape the frequent aerial assaults by the Air Force in and around Tenancingo, report similar occurrences.
Tenancingo was heavily bombed by the Air Force on Sept. 23, 1983, when guerrillas overran the town. At least 50 civilians were killed during the bombing attack. Most residents abandoned the town immediately after the air assault.
''In October and November, we were informed that the ICRC would arrive to provide us with food and medical assistance,'' says one woman who remained in Tenancingo until November. ''But each time we gathered to await their arrival, we were attacked by helicopters and planes instead. Many people were killed during these two attacks, including many children.''
This woman, who fled from Tenancingo to Santa Cruz Michapa, which is under Salvadorean Army control, contends she does not support the guerrillas.
''When the last attack came there were only 16 families left in Tenancingo, everyone else had fled or been killed,'' she says. ''I hid in the house with my children. I was waiting to die.''
The well-placed source in the capital confirms that the military blocked an attempt by the ICRC in November to make a delivery to Tenancingo.
This same source also contends that, occasionally, displaced people have been told there would be an ICRC delivery when none was actually planned. The Salvadorean armed forces, the source says, then attacked while the people were gathered to wait for the ICRC.
''Three times the Red Cross came to give us assistance and each time their visit was followed by aerial attacks,'' says a woman from a town outside Tenancingo who is now in a displaced persons ghetto in Santa Cruz Michapa.
Several displaced people in Santa Cruz Michapa, who fled from the Tenancingo area, confirmed all these reports.
The United States Embassy and the Salvadorean government insist that most of the civilians killed in conflict zones are massas. A recent cable sent from US Ambassador Thomas Pickering to the State Department describes the massas as more than innocent bystanders.
And a lieutenant in charge of the National Guard unit in Suchitoto says, ''Sure there are bombs being dropped around here all the time. That is because all of the towns out there are filled with either guerrillas or massas.''
Suchitoto, which came under heavy guerrilla attack just over a week ago, is virtually surrounded by guerrilla forces.
But displaced people, and those who live in guerrilla-occupied conflict zones , dispute the claim that only massas are being killed.
''In any of the towns under guerrilla control you have a mixture of people who are sympathetic to the guerrillas and people who are not,'' says one woman in La Escopeta whose two sisters and brother were killed in a Nov. 4, 1983, raid by the Army there. The raid, termed a massacre by local people, left roughly 118 people dead.
''The problem is that the Army, once it enters disputed territory, does not make distinctions,'' she adds. ''All who live here are guerrillas, even the children, and therefore all are targets.''