Guatemala strongman trial hears litany of horrors

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) - Witnesses recounted a litany of horrors on Thursday in the trial of former US-backed military strongman Efrain Rios Montt, and one soldier even accused Guatemala's current president of ordering civil war atrocities decades ago as an army major.

Mr Hugo Bernal, a soldier who was a mechanic in an engineering brigade in the area where atrocities were carried out, told the court that Mr Otto Perez Molina, now president, ordered soldiers to burn and pillage during Guatemala's dirty war with leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.

"The soldiers, on orders from Major 'Tito Arias,' better known as Otto Perez Molina ... coordinated the burning and looting, in order to later execute people," Mr Bernal told the court. Mr Perez was elected president and assumed office on Jan 14, 2012.

In line with the gruesome testimony that has marked the trial of Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, Mr Bernal told of what happened in one massacre in the early 1980s.

"The people who were to be executed arrived at the camp beaten, tortured, their tongues cut out, their fingernails pulled out," Mr Bernal said.

Rios Montt is on trial along with his former head of intelligence in connection with the deaths of 1,771 Mayan Indians during the military dictatorship he led from March 23, 1982 to Aug 8, 1983, during which he led a US-backed counterinsurgency against leftist guerrillas.

The former dictator has remained almost completely silent during the years of proceedings against him, but his lawyers have said there is no clear evidence of his responsibility for the crimes committed by Guatemalan troops.

On Thursday, the court also heard testimony from the victims of massacres. Some told the judges about the shelling of villages, beheadings and body parts kicked around like soccer balls.

"I saw them kill an old woman and officers cut off her head," said Mr Julio Velasco Raymundo, 40, who witnessed one massacre as a child. "Those officers played with the old woman's head like it was a soccer ball."

He said he saw soldiers dig trenches with earth-movers, then send children to collect trash, which the troops threw onto the bodies, soaked in gasoline and set afire.

He also told the court he saw the Guatemalan army shelling villages full of civilians.

Mr Velasco said his life was saved by a soldier who carried him away from a massacre even though a higher-ranking officer wanted to kill him.

"I remember a specialist (soldier), a man who, in spite of the war and all the things they did, there were good people," Mr Velasco recalled.

"One day the specialist put me in a tractor tire and rolled me away, and that saved my life."

A forensic expert, Mario David Garcia, said the bodies of pregnant women were found among the victims of massacres who were disinterred years later.