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Obama to visit human rights activist's tomb

President Barack Obama will visit the tomb of slain Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero during his visit to El Salvador next week, a gesture that some say is U.S. recognition of the slain human rights activist's cause.

Romero spoke out against repression by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army during the Central American country's 12-year civil war in which at least 75,000 people died. He was gunned down March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. The government and leftist guerrillas reached a peace treaty in 1992.

"It's historic," said Congresswoman Lorena Pena, a former guerrilla fighter with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a rebel group-turned-political party. "It's a recognition of our pastor who was killed for fighting for justice, for democracy and human rights."

Robert White, who was the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in the early 1980s, said that the visit by Obama to Romero's tomb "is like a U.S. stamp of approval on the positive influence Romero's life and death have had on Latin America and the world."

The visit "is a declaration that the United States is no longer identified with oligarchic governments," added White, who is now director of the Washington-based Center for International Policy, a foreign policy think tank.

But not all in El Salvador are happy with Obama's visit to Romero's tomb.

I imagine that (Obama) is doing something natural ... a courtesy visit to someone who is supposed to represent some measure of national spirit, (but) half of Salvadorans do not believe Romero is worthy of sanctification," Mario Valenti, a former president and member of the right-wing party Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, was quoted by El Mundo newspaper as saying in its Friday edition.

Obama "should also go to the grave of Major Roberto d'Aubuisson," Valenti said, referring to the notorious death squad leader.

Before his death in 1992, D'Aubuisson denied ordering Romero's killing, but the following year a U.N. truth commission on El Salvador concluded that he had.

D'Aubuisson founded Arena, which governed El Salvador from 1989 to 2009. The party never accepted the results of the commission's investigation.

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Associated Press writer Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.