TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Three Honduran military officers accused of human rights abuses eluded authorities trying to serve arrest warrants on them yesterday.
The officers are suspected of being former members of a CIA-trained unit called Battalion 316 that launched a violent campaign against suspected leftists as part of the Reagan administration's efforts to wipe out communism in Central America in the 1980s.
Their arrest was ordered on Tuesday by Judge Roy Medina, of the first Criminal Court of Letters, after attempts to make them come in voluntarily failed.
They are among 10 present and former military men specifically accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982.
Yesterday, agents in the Department of Criminal Investigations (DIC) searched the homes and work places of the three officers, but failed to find any of them.
"This has been a very sad day for the police," said Capt. Jose Danilo Orellana, referring to DIC's search of police headquarters.
"Watching them hunt down one of our officers is a serious blow."
One of the chief suspects being sought is Col. Alexander Hernandez, inspector general of the Honduran military police force, alleged to have been the commander of Battalion 316 in the 1980s.
Police officials said yesterday that Colonel Hernandez had left two days ago to begin a month-long vacation.
Carlos Lopez Osorio, the attorney for the three accused military officers, also was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Until yesterday, Mr. Lopez had spoken daily on radio talk shows and had held daily meetings with reporters, denouncing attempts to make his clients testify.
Mr. Lopez contends that the military are entitled to immunity from prosecution under a 1991 amnesty, which also covers subversives of the 1980s.
"They are fleeing," said Judge Medina, who is conducting the probe into the activities of Battalion 316 during the 1980s.
He issued arrest warrants for the three officers Tuesday.
"They are hiding out, planning how they are going to respond to the accusations."
He added, "They never expected me to take this action."
The trial against the officers began one month after a four-part series by The Sun reported that the CIA and the State Department collaborated with Battalion 316.
The series revealed that U.S. officials knew of the battalion's abuses but deliberately misled the U.S. Congress about human rights abuses in order to maintain public support for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
Honduran government officials have asked the Clinton administration to declassify more documents about the relationship between Battalion 316 and U.S. officials in an effort to pursue more cases against former members of the battalion.
The Clinton administration has promised to speed up the declassification.
But the probe is now stalled by the search for those ordered arrested.
Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, chief of the Honduran Armed Forces, denied that the military was hiding the suspects.
In a radio interview from Nicaragua, where he is on an official visit, he said: "This is not a confrontation between the courts and the armed forces. This is a matter that is being handled by the defense attorneys, the defendants and the courts. It is a matter that they must resolve.
"The 1980s was a very painful time," he said.
"But it is sad to see that our country is still gripped by problems that have been resolved. Honduras is free and democratic."