US helps Honduras beef up military base at swampy Nicaraguan border

Fort Mokoron looks like a Boy Scout camp with tents set among the pine trees. Scout-size men in fatigues hack halfheartedly with machetes at the underbrush.

But the roar of two large Chinook transport helicopters overhead dispels the Boy Scout illusion.

With considerable support from the United States, the Honduran Army is moving 10 percent of its troops to this swampy, nearly roadless region about 50 miles from Nicaragua and an equal distance from the Caribbean.

The operation increases Honduran military strength in a zone that is growing tense. Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge Martinez says ''a real state of war'' exists along the border. His country charges Honduras is allowing anti-Sandinista rebels to use its side of the border for guerrilla attacks into Nicaragua.

Until recently, Honduras had only 70 men here. Now its troop strength is about 1,500.

Near Fort Mokoron are 20,000 Miskito Indians who took refuge here. They fled Nicaragua after the Sandinista government attempted to resettle them further inland from their tribal homeland last year. Area residents report the Miskitos, too, have military camps hidden along the border for raids into Nicaragua.

As tensions between Nicaragua and Honduras mount, the US is stepping up support for Honduras on several fronts. Beside materiel and transport help for Fort Mokoron, last week saw Gen. Fred Woerner, Pentagon director of security assistance for Latin America, meeting with the Honduran high command. The Portland, a US Navy troop transport reportedly carrying 600 marines, pulled in to Tela on the Caribbean for a three-day visit.

Honduras already is the third-largest recipient of US military and economic aid in Latin America. This year the US is giving Honduras $10.6 million in military aid. Approximately 50 US military advisers here teach classes ranging from radio to counterinsurgency.

US officials admit Honduras practices ''benign neglect'' toward some 4,000 counterrevolutionary forces on the border.

It is harder to prove Nicaragua's involvement - but the power plant and airline bombings came only a few days after Honduran troops entered El Salvador to support troops battling guerrillas there. Some observers say it was probably Salvadoran guerrillas who bombed the Honduran targets.

Nicaragua and Honduras blame each other other for the warfare. They regularly trade potshots and serious allegations.

Nicaragua says more than 60 people were killed by Honduran-based rebels over the last two months. In a letter to the UN Security Council this week, Honduras charged Nicaragua was involved in the July 4 sabotage of a power plant in Tegucigalpa and the bombing of a Honduran airlines office in Costa Rica July 3.

When Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto blamed Honduras's defense minister for the mid-July deaths of 14 peasant militiamen along the border, Honduras Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica said that Nicaragua had a ''war psychosis.''

Troops in full battle dress have been guarding the streets into Tegucigalpa for weeks, but small bombs went off Wednesday night damaging the offices of Air Florida, the Pan American LIfe Insurance Company, and El Salvador's Taca Airlines. At press time, Honduras officials had not as yet assessed blame on anyone. The blasts caused a panic on streets filled with pedestrians, but there were only a few minor injuries.

Both Honduras and Nicaragua have shown some willingness to negotiate. Both have proposed peace plans. Nicaragua's ambassador in Honduras announced this week that his country is ready to review the Honduran proposals and called for a meeting of the foreign ministers.

But in Honduras, officials of late appear to give conflicting signals. Just as Foreign Minister Paz Barnica was announcing a peace initiative to the Organization of America States, Defense Minister Gustavo Alvarez was telling a TV network that he would welcome US troops in Honduras to ''defend ourselves from the threat of Russian aggression.''

Dr. Jorge Arturo Reyna, former director of the National University and leader of the Social Democratic faction of the ruling Liberal Party, says that the US doesn't understand the effects of using Honduras as a base to stop revolution in Central America.

''The real problem,'' Arturo Reyna says, ''is misery - hunger and unemployment that impels the gun.''

Reyna says there is little support now among Hondurans for the rebel groups that operate in the border region. But in the future, this ambivalence could change, he says.

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