Skirmish on Salvadoran road -- eyewitness account

"There's shooting up ahead. Better wait here," exclaimed the Salvadoran Army captain who had halted taxi on the almost-deserted highway between the spanking new international airport and San Salvador, the capital.

"We've got the devils on the run," he went on hurriedly, glancing only casually at our identification. "But they still keep us busy.

"Their attacks are a little like punching a balloon without breaking it. That's about all the guerrillas can do. They punch over there and we resist and bounce back there. It's never ending.

"Yet their punches are less forceful now than a few months ago -- and we are stronger."

The captain stopped abruptly. He was gone almost as quickly as he had appeared to halt the taxi.

An eerie silence descended over the scene as he disappeared into the tall brush alongside the road. Palm trees that had flapped their fronds gracefully in the wind minutes before were suddenly still.

It was late morning and the hot midday sun blistered the asphalt highway surface. The taxi grew warm without the breeze that a few minutes before flowed through the opens windows of the moving car.

"Varoom." It sounded like a rocket launcher or bazooka.

The driver and this reporter fled the taxi and followed the captain into the brush.

Then the silence again. Minutes slipped away.

A rustling in the grass quickly became a thunder of soldiers moving ahead. The captain could be seen among them.

Incessant shooting began mid shouts and other noise. The sound of a low-flying aircraft, hidden from view by the trees and rugged terrain along both sides of the road, grew closer. The fighting was taking place 500 feet ahead, up a slight rise.

The shooting, the commands, the aircraft noise mingled for minutes.

Then, just a quickly as it began, it was quiet. Minutes ticked away. Four, five, maybe seven or eight.

The captain reappeared.

"Go on, but carefully, please," he urged, looking repeatedly over his shoulder to where the fighting had taken place.

"The road is cleared for the next few miles, but those [obscenity] are still around. Or at least many of them are, we killed six and captured seven. The others got away."

He sighed then. "I don't like it. They got one of my boys, but in a way they are all my boys -- the young manhood of the nation.

"Somehow, it has got to end. And soon."

A little warily, he added, "I hope."

It was a reflective moment in between battles. There would be other battles, probably that very day.

The captain's hope is the same hope shared by most Salvadorans -- rightists, leftists, the centrist government, rich and poor, civilians and military.

It is the same hope expressed by Robert White, the US ambassador who, before being sacked last week by Secretary of State Alexander Haig, had labored through nine long months in 1980 to find a viable solution to El Salvador's tragic dilemmas.

Those dilemmas: the vast disparity between wealth and poverty, the feudal oligarchical ruling class, the class struggle and bitter hatreds, the polarizations of left and right leaving little in between, and the incessant fighting like that in the midday sun on the highway between the Pacific coastal airport and the capital city 40 miles away in El Salvador's central plateau.

That fighting and all the other violence that has become so much a part of life here have left 15,000 dead in the past 15 months.

Just the day before the highway confrontation, at least 35 Salvadorans lost their lives. At least 10 were guerrillas belonging to the increasingly hard-pressed leftist cause, young men drawn largely from the small, but important, middle class. Three others were businessmen, six were soldiers, and quite a few of the remaining were humble folk, innocent bystanders in the struggle who long for an end to the carnage.

That these innocent bystanders, largely poor people who for a time responded to guerrilla appeals for strikes, are no longer so responsive tells much about the declining guerrilla fortunes.

"They can no longer expect to defeat the government," comments as well-placed foreigner here. "But they sure can rattle that government and keep it off guard , busy with fighting rather than governing."

There is irony in this situation. The guerrillas have better weaponry today than they did a few months ago, thanks largely to an infusion of more sophisticated weapons, probably from Cuba.

But with their numbers being steadily reduced in engagements like that on the highway, and with the capture of many of the weapons, the guerrillas have not been able to mount the full-scale offensive their propaganda organs were calling "the final offensive" less than a month ago.

Moreover, the government troops, albeit hard-pressed with resisting the "balloon-punching" mentioned by the Army captain, are flushed with success in most engagements with the guerrillas. Success is a heady experience.

The Army has received some military aid from the US in recent weeks. That, of course, has strengthened the Military position. It has also been a factor in increasing the violence, just as arrival of arms for the guerrillas did.

The big question on the minds of many here is: How does it all end? And how soon?

The Salvadoran Army captain seemed to have these questions in mind when he commented: "Something has to give sometime soon. We cannot go on tearing the country apart. That goes as much for the government and the Army as it does for the guerrillas. There has got to be some compromise, some yielding form all of us.

"If not, no one is going to win."

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