Argentines tongue-lash military on report justifying '70s war on leftists

With return to civilian rule just six months away, Argentina's military is scrambling almost desperately to polish its image. The military clearly worries about public recriminations for its human-rights record during the war against leftist terrorists in the 1970s and for its conduct of the Falklands war.

Military leaders got a taste of public anger over their rights record at the weekend after the government produced a report on the disappearance of thousands of Argentines during that so-called ''dirty war.''

The long-awaited explanation of that war was angrily rejected by virtually all sectors of Argentine society - particularly by the families and friends of at least 6,000 Argentines who disappeared during that period.

In the first 48 hours after the statement was delivered on television last Thursday, at least six violent demonstrations took place in Buenos Aires. Spectators cheered on the demonstrators in several of those protests. Clerks from downtown stores urged some of the demonstrators ''to give the military 'gorillas' a message that they are subject to the law as is everyone else.''

Many Argentines took issue with the government's statement that all actions by the military and the police in the war on leftists were ''acts of service.''

To suggest that military and police actions linked to the mysterious disappearance of at least 6,000 persons were acts of service is little more than a cover-up, in the view of many Argentines. (Some human-rights groups say the number of disappeared may be as high as 20,000 or 30,000.)

''The military could justify anything with such a blanket standard. We don't accept that,'' says Italo Luders, a leading presidential candidate of the Peronist Party.

Many Argentines expect the government, before turning power over to civilians , to issue a law requiring that any criminal prosecutions related to the war be conducted by military tribunals.

If promulgated, the law would virtually eliminate prospects of an independent investigation into the cases of the disappeared and into the military's conduct during the period.

The April 28 military report - read in a 45-minute television special broadcast nationwide with pictures of terrorist attacks as visual backdrop - acknowledged that at least some officials may have gone too far during the war on leftists.

Errors were made ''in the almost apocalyptic panic'' of the times, the report said. These ''might have trespassed the limit of respect for fundamental human rights,'' it added. But it cautioned that ''only history can judge with precision who is directly responsible for unjust methods and innocent deaths.''

The military appears increasingly isolated since issuing the report. It had hoped its explanation would ease the transition toward civilian rule. The major preoccupation of the military now seems to concern how to prevent public recriminations. So far the generals and admirals in control do not appear to have come up with an answer for their dilemma.

The military, now headed by Army Gen.Cristino Nicolaides, also wants to prevent public scrutiny of its defeat by the British in the Falklands war last spring.

In some measure, the generals are more concerned about this criticism than that of the war against terrorism. Some Argentines, including influential newspaper columnist J. Iglesias Rouco, have been asking for a probe of the Falklands war. They say if the Argentine military cannot handle a war more adequately than it did in the Falklands, is there any real justification for the military?

The military has already begun its own internal investigation into the conduct of the Falklands war. But it clearly wants to wash its own dirty linen.

That Falklands linen is quite soiled. Heretofore-secret reports in military archives, which are beginning to come under public scrutiny, suggest that the top officers in the Falklands campaign had little conception of the weather, terrain, or other physical details of the South Atlantic islands.

Further, the internal military reports on the Falklands war suggest that there was plenty of bickering within the military over how to wage the war. Details of the differences are sketchy. But Argentine field commanders in the Falklands, which Argentina calls the Malvinas, complained repeatedly in messages to the general staff in Buenos Aires over the mainland's failure to appreciate the need for simple items like warm clothing and blankets. Both were in obvious short supply.

''These are every bit as important as bullets,'' one message read.

Although public reaction to the Falklands war seems to be a bigger worry overall for the military than reaction to the anti-terrorist campaign, the public focus for now is on human rights in the '70s.

Italo Luders' criticisms are important - not just because Mr. Luders is a top presidential contender but also because he was head of the Argentine Senate in 1975 and helped draft the decrees cited by the military as justification for its actions against the leftists.

Those measures, Mr. Luders says, were designed to give the military a mandate to stamp out terrorists ''within the law and with respect for military regulations and the norms of humanity.''

Most critics recognize that the military saved the country from a continuation, and perhaps an escalation of, the terrorist violence that had reached alarming proportions by 1975. But the cost was high.

In a separate development, some families whose relatives died fighting in the Falklands set out to visit the islands on the cargo ship Lago Lacar even though the Argentine junta has ordered the ship diverted and has placed a ban on any memorial act for fighters. A trip organizer said the Lago Lacar will first rendezvous with Argentine Navy ships for a ceremony at the site where the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano was sunk by the British last May 2. The ship will then head for the islands.

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