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Central America's bitter wars spread

By James Nelson GoodsellLatin America correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 1982

Largely obscured by events elsewhere in the past six months, Central America's political, social, and economic malaise refuses to go away.

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Indeed, the bitter struggle between rival forces in the countries of the region has, if anything, escalated during these months. The prospect that fighting will engulf the whole region looms large.

''Fighting is at an all-time high,'' says a senior United States official recently on the scene. ''The region has become the vortex of a drama that is playing itself out in an escalating confrontation between guerrillas and governments, between nations and peoples.

''It is a battle of words and bullets.

''And it is being fought out in the rugged hill country of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, in the swampy rain forests of Nicaragua, in the major urban areas of all these countries, and at the conference table as well.''

Most observers agree with this assessment.

While the Falklands crisis, Lebanon's traumas, Mexico's economic difficulties , and other issues swept world attention away from Central America, contending forces in El Salvador have been locked in bitter battles. More than 1,000 Salvadorans have lost their lives in the past six months.

El Salvador remains the center of the Central American storm. Leftist guerrillas, after some months of lessened activity, are stepping up their operations. Their current 14-day-old offensive caught government forces off guard. They penetrated the capital city, SanSalvador, cut the Pan American Highway in several spots, and have seized a number of towns along the border with Honduras.

But government forces - or right-wing paramilitary groups allied with the government - appear to have struck back. Last week, as guerrillas moved into several towns near the Honduran border, six top leftist politicians were kidnapped in San Salvador. The six were the leading members of the unarmed, political sector of the opposition still living in El Salvador. Their whereabouts are unknown, and their loss would leave a political vacuum for government opponents in the country.

Recent battles between government forces and guerrillas has been intense, with scores killed on both sides. The Salvadoran Army is better equipped and trained than it was a year ago. Several thousand Salvadorans have received training in counterinsurgency in the United States, others have been trained by US advisers on the scene. The Army is also adopting some tactics used by the guerrillas.

''The night is no longer in the hands of the guerrillas,'' says one colonel. While this may be true in some areas, it is not true in others, due to widely varying abilities and aggressiveness of Army commanders.

So far it appears that neither government forces nor leftist guerrillas have an edge. It is not quite a stalemate, but as the struggle sways back and forth across the countryside, it appears to be threatening to engulf neighboring countries.

Guatemala is potentially as volatile, perhaps even more volatile, than its southeastern neighbor, El Salvador. Government troops and leftist guerrillas are stepping up warfare. Some Indians are joining forces with leftists. Battles in the past two months have been the most violent in a decade.

Government forces have been pursuing leftist guerrillas with a relentlessness reminiscent of 1960s engagements that decimated guerrilla ranks. Now, however, the guerrillas are stronger, more sophisticated, and stealthier. They are fighting with a resolve that has ''frankly surprised us,'' says Army Col. Hector Ramirez Soler.

''It is nip and tuck,'' says a US adviser on the scene, ''whether the Army will win or the guerrillas will gain the edge.''

That uncertainty is augmented by charges of ''criminal'' human rights violations by the Army under the President, Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, who came to power in March. After offering amnesty to guerrillas who would surrender, some 300 of whom did, the government launched an offensive against suspected guerrillas. In June alone, 300 suspected guerrillas were killed or captured. Amnesty International claims that 2,600 peasants, including Indians, have been massacred since March. Thousands of refugees have fled across the border into Mexico.