Pubdate: 22 Nov 1998 
Source: Reuters 
Copyright: 1998 Reuters Limited.


COLUMBUS, Ga. - Thousands of protesters gathered Sunday in the largest-ever
demonstration against the U.S. Army's School of the Americas, a military
training center where opponents say Latin American soldiers learn torture.

By late morning, crowds lined both sides of an entrance road and some
protesters began marching onto the grounds of the U.S. Army's Fort Benning,
about 85 miles southwest of Atlanta.

Many carried white crosses they said represented victims of some of the
school's almost 60,000 graduates.

Actor Martin Sheen was among those who spoke to a crowd organizers
estimated at about 7,000. Columbus Police spokesman Lt. M.C. Todd estimated
the crowd at fewer than 2,500.

"We have nothing against the Army. The Army has a proud tradition. We're
asking it to take responsibility for people it trained in Central and South
America," Sheen told reporters.

Organizers said 2,319 people risked arrest by entering the base, which
critics say has turned out a steady stream of Latin American dictators,
torturers and rogues.

Graduates include former Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, former
Argentine dictator Leopoldo Galtieri, Haitian coup leader Raoul Cedras and
Salvadoran death squad organizer the late Roberto D'Aubuisson.

Opponents in Congress, led by Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Joseph Kennedy,
have so far failed in efforts to cut funding for the school.

Attendance at Sunday's gathering was larger than at eight previous annual
protests, which mark the anniversary of the Nov. 16, 1989, killings of six
Jesuit priests by a Salvadoran army unit. The school trained 19 of the 26
soldiers implicated in the deaths by a United Nations investigation.

"We gather here to honor our brothers and sisters in Latin America,"
protest leader the Rev. Roy Bourgeois told supporters. "We will close the
School of the Americas."

About 2,000 demonstrators protested last year and more than 600 of them
were arrested when they entered the military post. About three dozen people
who had been arrested for previous protests were convicted of criminal
trespass earlier this year and sentenced to six months in prison and fined
$3,000 each.

Army officers say the school, which moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, from
Panama in 1984, has helped advance democracy in Latin America and that it
has reformed its curriculum to stress respect for human rights.

Opponents say it is a "school of assassins," whose graduates they say also
include several Chilean officers accused along with former dictator Augusto
Pinochet of genocide, terrorism and torture.

Fort Benning officials held a debate about the school Saturday, but
opponents declined to participate when they were told they could not carry
cardboard coffins onto the buses that would transport them to the event.

Protesters at the base on Saturday carried banners reading "Close the
School of the Assassins," "La Sangre Esta en Tus Manos" (Blood is on your
hands) and "Stop the Oppression of Latin American Peasants." A man wearing
a skeleton costume strode through the crowd on stilts. 
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Checked-by: Richard Lake