Khaleej Times Online: SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Schafik Handal, a communist guerrilla commander during El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war and a former presidential candidate, died of a heart attack on Tuesday at the age of 75.
Schafik Handal – El Salvador
Handal was a senior leader of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, rebel group that fought a series of US-backed right-wing governments throughout the 1980s in a war that claimed around 75,000 lives.
FMLN party officials said Handal died after suffering a heart attack at El Salvador’s main airport as he returned from the weekend inauguration of Bolivian President Evo Morales.
Handal led El Salvador’s Communist Party into forming the FMLN guerrilla army with four other leftist groups in 1980.
Backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba, he was one of five top rebel commanders during the war and led the FMLN team in peace talks that finally ended the conflict in 1992.
The FMLN became a political party under the peace agreement and Handal, a friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro, was elected to the National Assembly.
Gray-bearded and feisty, he ran for president in March 2004 but lost to conservative Tony Saca.
The veteran leftist had promised to withdraw El Salvador’s small troop contingent from Iraq, but many voters were turned off by his violent past and feared damage to El Salvador’s relations with the United States.
Still, even his political rivals found reason to praise him after his death.
“The country has lost a politician who knew how to fight for his convictions,” said Roberto Avila, a founder of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance party, or ARENA.
The FMLN and ARENA were bitter enemies throughout the civil war, with both sides linked to brutal crimes. The rebel army executed mayors in rural areas and killed civilians in botched attacks, while ARENA had ties to shadowy right-wing death squads blamed for thousands of murders.
Despite his dour appearance and hard-line positions, Handal was an astute negotiator and was credited with helping save the peace process at times of tension with funny one-liners.
“I’ll remember Schafik as a left-winger, a fighter, but with his feet on the ground. And when it was time to negotiate, he negotiated,” said Gloria Salguero Gross, another founding member of ARENA who now has a post in Saca’s government.
“Schafik was a tireless fighter,” said Leonel Gonzalez, another of the FMLN’s five leading war-time commanders.
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