Forensic team works at an exhumation site in the village of Yancolo as they search for human remains of the El Mozote massacre in the town of Cacaopera, El Salvador [Jose Cabezas-Reuters]

A retired Salvadoran general on Friday acknowledged for the first time that the armed forces were responsible for a notorious 1981 massacre of nearly 1,000 people during the country’s civil war.

Juan Rafael Bustillo, a former commander of the Air Force, told a court the elite United States-trained Atlacatl Battalion carried out the El Mozote massacre in eastern El Salvador in which unarmed villagers, most of them women and children, were slaughtered.

According to a UN report, soldiers tortured and executed nearly 1,000 residents of El Mozote and surrounding hamlets in the Morazan department, 180 km (110 miles) northeast of San Salvador, as they searched for rebel fighters in December 1981.

At a court hearing in the eastern town of San Francisco Gotera in Morazan, Bustillo testified he had had no part in the operation which he said was conducted at the behest of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the feared Atlacatl Battalion.

“War sometimes gives rise to something in the minds of people that attaches no value to the lives of others. I think it was on his initiative (Monterrosa’s),” Bustillo said.

“That’s my reasoning, it was on his initiative that he gave the order to kill the people of El Mozote, and the other surrounding cantons,” the retired general told the court.

“I almost feel it was like a moment, some instance of madness on the part of Colonel Monterrosa to have committed that offence, because it was an offence,” he added.

Monterrosa, a highly regarded officer in his day, died in 1984 during a helicopter explosion in the east of the country.

The 1980-1992 civil war, which pitted left-wing rebel groups against the US-backed Salvadoran army, lead to the deaths of an estimated 75,000 people and left 8,000 more missing.

In 2016, a judge ordered the case of the El Mozote massacre to be re-opened. Sixteen military officials including ex-defense minister Guillermo Garcia are being tried over the killings.

Representatives of the victims hailed Bustillo’s testimony.

“General Bustillo has confirmed many of the excesses demonstrated by evidence and which were denounced by victims,” David Morales, one of the victims’ lawyers, told reporters.

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