An alleged Salvadorean Army massacre of 68 civilians in eight small villages here in mid-July is striking a blow to the credibility of the new civilian government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte, say political observers here.
The Duarte administration, inaugurated June 1, has promised to end abuses of authority in El Salvador.
When asked about the charges Sunday, Duarte told reporters he had not heard about the alleged massacre or any request for an inquiry, although high-ranking Roman Catholic Church officials had been publicly demanding an investigation for several days.
Salvadoreans living in the area of the murders - about 30 miles northeast of this capital city - say that some of the troops involved in the killings were from the United States-trained Atlacatl battalion. The battalion has been implicated in several multiple-murder incidents that are viewed here as massacres - most notably the murder of nearly 500 residents from the town of El Mozote in Morazan Province in late 1981.
A spokesman for the Salvadorean joint chiefs of staff, Col. Ricardo Cienfuegos, has denounced the latest charges of murder as a ''propaganda campaign against the armed forces.''
The human rights office of the Roman Catholic Church in San Salvador has compiled more than 40 black and white photographs that it contends show the remains of 20 of the 68 victims. The gruesome collection of photographs, which were made available to this reporter, were taken by an investigator for the church office at the end of July, according to church officials. The church office also collected testimonies about the killings from several survivors.
''The massacre took place from July 18 to the 22nd,'' says Maria Julia Hernandez, director of the church's human rights office. ''We saw 20 of the bodies and have the names of 68 people who were killed. Most of those who were killed were children, women, and elderly people.'' Many of them were physically mutilated.
Last week two journalists, including this writer, and an armed rebel escort traveled to the alleged massacre sites. Twice we hid in the leafy undergrowth to escape detection by a plane and helicopter monitoring the area.
The villages that were hit are in the northwest section of the Cabanas Province, an area resembling a wasteland. The small towns have been decimated by the government's heavy aerial bombardment.
The rebel who escorted us - after proposing that a sign be left on our car saying ''it is prohibited to touch this car by order of the guerrillas'' - took us to two of the alleged massacre sites. The dirt road, which was often completely engulfed in undergrowth, as well as the narrow footpath to the village of San Francisco Echeverria, were littered with rusting tin cans of beans and tropical fruit cocktail, apparently discarded by government troops.
Residents from the eight towns contend that when troops entered their area of Cabanas, they shot to death the civilians they encountered. Many of the residents were apparently hiding in holes in the ground when they were seized by troops. The bodies of many of the victims, they allege, were later burned by the government soldiers.
''When the soldiers came, most of us hid, and the guerrilla forces retreated further north,'' one survivor says.
''The soldiers burned and destroyed our houses and crops. They went into the countryside looking for people and when they found them, they killed them with machine guns and hand grenades.
''Some of the women were raped before being killed. Afterward, the bodies were burned so that we could not identify who they were.''
Every structure in the village of San Francisco Echeverria has been severely damaged by either bombing or fire. The cornfields outside the village have been hacked down and destroyed.
Residents we met on the road into the village, as well as our rebel guide, said the troops cut down the nearby cornfields soon after entering the town as part of a campaign to create food shortages in rebel territory.
We were led to an outhouse near the remains of the village school. Here the troops allegedly burned the bodies of six women they had killed.
The second site we visited was a common grave outside the village. We were told the grave held the bodies of seven family members.