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Guatemalan bishop is beaten to death

On Friday, Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera presented a scathing report on human rights violations during Guatemala's 36-year civil war. Late Sunday, the 75-year-old prelate was beaten to death with a concrete block.

It was the first killing of a high-ranking church official in Central America since peace accords ended civil wars that had wracked the region during the 1980s.

Neither Roman Catholic church officials nor prosecutors gave a motive Monday for the crime, in which someone smashed Gerardi's head and left the body in a pool of blood in the garage of his residence at San Sebastian church. Nothing was stolen from the house.

If the killing was retaliation for the report, it shows that animosity from the civil war did not end with Guatemala's 1996 peace agreement. If it was a random attack, it is yet another manifestation of the crime wave caused by the war's legacy of plentiful weapons, poverty and a culture of violence.

The Rev. Mario Orantes, a parish priest at San Sebastian, said he discovered Gerardi's body lying next to a bloodied concrete block about midnight. The face was so smashed in that he identified the bishop by his ring.

Gerardi, head of the Guatemala City archdiocese's human rights office, had issued a report Friday that blamed the army and its paramilitaries for nearly 80 percent of the killings during the war.

Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas branch of Human Rights Watch, called the killing politically motivated. "I can't believe this was just an isolated common crime," he said from Washington.

"This is really a wake-up call," he said. "I think the agents linked to the security apparatus are still very much active."

The head author of the report, Edgar Gutierrez, said the timing was suspicious.

The report, drawn up by Roman Catholic Church human rights agencies, stemmed from the peace accords. The agreements called for an investigation for historical purposes.

Jean Arnault, director of the U.N. mission for Guatemala, called the killing "a violent contrast, given that Gerardi was a man who played a role in the peace process."

Gerardi was the first bishop slain in Guatemala.

Attorney General Hugo Perez Aguilera called the latest killing "a vile murder," and said a police artist had drawn up a sketch of the male suspect from witnesses' descriptions.

Guatemalan Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio said Gerardi's body would be laid out at the Guatemala City cathedral for three days before burial this week.

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