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Salvador Army trying to shift toward smaller, quicker units

By Julia PrestonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 16, 1983



Meanguera, El Salvador

The only discernible sound in Meanguera today is cats wailing. Fighting forced residents of the village to flee in a frantic exodus in mid-January, but a few have quietly begun to return. One of these villagers, Leonila Chicas, says she fled when the Salvadorean Army shelled houses with mortars while leftist guerrillas were holding the village.

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Meanguera was the site of the thickest combat in a three-week Army operation in northern Morazan Province that used more troops - over 6,000 - than any other in the civil war. Senior commanders described that operation, which began Jan. 17, as ''a decisive moment.''

But looking back, the battle results appear mixed.

The guerrillas, who opened their offensive Jan. 8, showed mobility and coordination that the Army was hard pressed to match. They seized Meanguera Jan. 16 and seemed to draw a battle line at a river just south of here, hoping to lure soldiers into low ground below the village. But that effort failed.

Joaquin Villalobos, commander of the guerrilla group that operates in Morazan , said in a radio broadcast last week that his fighters botched their Meanguera maneuvers. ''One of our columns was delayed and the enemy got away,'' he said with rare candor over leftist radio Venceremos.

But the guerrillas still appear to be moving more adeptly than the Army, with only a quarter the number of fighters. The military is struggling - sometimes successfully, other times not - to change this picture. It is trying to shift from a garrison-based force used to moving in big sweeps to a counterinsurgency army that can chase guerrillas with agility and confront them quickly.

Behind the scenes, United States military trainers are advising the Salvadorean Army to divide its troops into small patrols. This, the advisers say , would enable the Army to keep continuous pressure on the guerrillas.

The Army has tried out this advice - but only sporadically. In Morazan, the ''Ramon Belloso'' battalion of more than 1,000 men will remain in a northern town to patrol, rather than pull out as troops have done after other sweeps.

The advisers also advocate concentrating efforts in the south, where there are major highways and huge farms crucial to the nation's economy. Despite the US advice, an officer of the ''Humberto Corada'' battalion says, ''We're the armed forces. We can't allow insurgents to move anywhere in our territory.''

The Army scored some successes in Morazan - destroying two crucial guerrilla base camps and wiping out a repeater station of radio Venceremos. And it now controls the road north through the province, on which until recently guerrillas had regularly scored ambushes on troop convoys.

(But wire reports Tuesday said guerrillas have gained control of a road between San Salvador, the nation's capital, and Suchitoto, 30 miles to the northeast. Guerrillas are said to be preparing for an assault on the town.)

After the Army gained control of Meanguera on Jan. 22, guerrillas temporarily drove it back out. ''It was the first time any troops had that experience,'' said a Western diplomat who observed the battle.

When the Army returned with reinforcements to retake the village and push north, the guerrillas faded into the mountains.

Meanwhile, while the Army's three elite US-trained ''immediate reaction'' battalions were tied up in Morazan, the guerrillas moved into Berlin in southeastern Usulutan Province, the largest town they have taken in the war.

''Berlin was an important psychological blow,'' said a US official. ''Now people in the towns in the south are scared to death that a real war is going to be fought right in their yards.''

The Belloso battalion is patrolling actively. But in parts of Morazan, the Army opted for the first time to withdraw all soldiers from some small towns. ''I'm interested in protecting the road,'' said Col. Mario Enrique Acevedo, commander of Morazan Province. ''If they see us coming in force, they run. If I leave five guys somewhere, they jump on them. This way I can still use the rifles.''

Leadership of the military remains in doubt. The minister of defense, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, had been expected to resign, but he appears to be shoring up his position. Last week he made two key military appointments of men whose loyalty to him may be stronger than their credentials as combat commanders.

The lack of driving leadership is wearing away morale among the troops. In January, more than 250 soldiers surrendered to the guerrillas in combat, nearly half of the total for all of last year.

In Morazan and Usulutan ,the Army bombed in or close to towns with US-supplied A-37 Dragonfly jets. The fear of the A-37s is felt across the countryside, even among peasants who have no affinity with the guerrillas.