Has the Salvadoran Army massacred hundreds of men, women, and children in recent weeks?
With Reagan administration certification that the human-rights climate in El Salvador is improving, that question lingers, begging definitive answer.
Reports of a major massacre last December near the north-central village of Mozote surfaced this week. But they were vehemently denied by Salvadoran military leaders and other top officials of the civil-war-racked Central American country.
Moreover, the United States State Department said it is skeptical about these latest reports, adding that they are much like a story last month that the US Embassy in San Salvador had investigated, but had been unable to corroborate.
''Stories detailing such deaths frequently have a politically motivated overtone,'' a department spokesman said. Salvadoran officials agree. With legislative balloting less than 60 days away, they see the latest massacre reports as part of a campaign by Salvadoran guerrillas both to discredit the government and put a cloud over the electoral process.
These Salvadorans note that the guerrilla movement is bent on doing what it can to destroy US confidence in, and support of, the joint civilian-military government now in power in El Salvador.
''This is part of a propaganda machine . . . put into effect now, when we are about to see the possibility of economic and military help to El Salvador,'' comments Col. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the Salvadoran defense minister.
Some Salvadoran officials see these latest massacre reports as an effort to discredit the elite Atlacatl Brigade, a US-trained outfit, operating in Morazan province. The brigade is supposed to be the most disciplined unit in the Salvadoran Army. ''It simply would not be involved in a massacre,'' said a top Salvadoran official.
Yet the massacre reports persist and continue to circulate. This week dispatches to the New York Times and Washington Post told of the ''massacre of major proportions.'' Numerous human-rights organizations, like Amnesty International, Oxfam America, and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, say the reports are true.
Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte's government is hard put to answer the allegations. Despite disclaimers such as Colonel Garcia's, government officials find it increasingly difficult to respond to the reports.
''How do you answer them?'' asks one official. ''What sort of proof can we give that they are false?
''By the same token, where is the proof that there have been massacres? Shouldn't the burden of proof be on those who cast the allegations in the first place?''
The Duarte government also feels that the emphasis on reports of massacres and other human-rights violations has obscured the actions of the guerrillas. ''They are committing atrocities,'' comments a government spokesman, ''but there is nothing about these developments in the US press.''
The guerrillas, meanwhile, are proving more daring. This week, they attacked El Salvador's biggest Air Force base, damaging four US-made helicopters and six warplanes with a barrage of armor-piercing rockets and machine-gun fire. The helicopters, supplied last year as part of Reagan administration efforts to beef up the Salvadoran military, are Huey-class helicopters, valued at $400,000 each.
The air base, Ilopango, is the former international airport, just outside San Salvador. It is supposed to be well guarded. The guerrilla attack, however, raises doubts about its defenses. The attack is thought to have been carried out by saboteurs infiltrating the defense perimeter around the base.
One other Salvadoran development this week was announcement by Colonel Garcia: The armed forces have finished an investigation into charges that six national guardsmen killed three US Roman Catholic nuns and a lay missionary in December 1980. He refused comment on reports that one of the guardsmen confessed to the killings when faced with a Federal Bureau of Investigation lie detector test.
''All I can say is that the investigation . . . has been completed,'' he said. ''I can only say that an official communique will be issued soon.''