Argentina Charges Ex-Dictator and Others in 'Dirty War' Deaths

UENOS AIRES, July 10 — An investigative judge today ordered the arrest of Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Argentina's former military dictator, and more than 30 other military officers on charges that they abused human rights during the "dirty war" against leftists here more than 20 years ago.

The officers, most of them retired, are accused of ordering or taking part in the kidnapping, torture and execution of more than 20 members of the left-wing Montonero guerrillas.

The remains of the victims, like many of the estimated 30,000 others who disappeared during seven years of brutal military rule, were never recovered.

In addition to General Galtieri, two other especially prominent former military leaders were ordered jailed. They are Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suárez Masón, who as military commander of the Buenos Aires region during the worst years of the conflict has been blamed for the abduction and murder of an estimated 5,000 people, and Gen. Cristino Nicolaides, a former commander of the Argentine Army. Many of the others charged today served in Battalion 601, an army intelligence unit with a particularly fearsome reputation for ruthlessness.

According to human rights groups, people taken into custody by such intelligence units were often drugged and then thrown into the sea from airplanes after the last bit of useful information had been coerced from them through torture.

With Argentina facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history, the arrest order issued by Judge Claudio Bonadío was overshadowed by speculation about who will run in the coming presidential election. But his action was hailed by Estela de Carlotto, leader of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and other human rights figures as a belated but "welcome step toward justice."

General Galtieri was the country's de facto and highly unpopular ruler 20 years ago when he gambled that he could send troops to seize the Falkland Islands, the British colony also claimed by Argentina, and that Britain would not respond.

Argentina's humiliating defeat in the three-month war that resulted led within a year to the collapse of the military dictatorship, the restoration of democracy and the start of a still unresolved debate over how to punish those guilty of the widespread and systematic human rights abuses that characterized the period.

At first many officers and soldiers were arrested. But during the 1980's two separate sweeping amnesty laws, widely criticized by human rights groups and relatives of the disappeared, were passed. One exempted from punishment members of the military who asserted that they were only following orders issued by senior officers.

As a result, most of the arrests that have taken place for more than a decade are due to loopholes in the laws. For instance, Gen. Jorge Videla and Adm. Emilio Massera, two members of the junta that ruled Argentina in the late 1970's, are under house arrest and facing charges that they authorized the theft of children born to women in detention, a crime not covered by the amnesty laws.

But last year, Judge Bonadío and a colleague ruled separately that the amnesty measures were in themselves unconstitutional.

That laid the legal groundwork for today's arrest order, and human rights groups expressed hope that other human rights violators, some of whom are also sought in Europe, may be detained soon.