HONDURAS. A big loser in the battle over `contra' aid

No matter who wins the battle in the United States Congress over President Reagan's request for aid to Nicaragua's ``contra'' rebels there will be one sure loser: Honduras. If Congress approves $100 million for the contras, the Honduras government will face the awkward prospect of maintaining the official line that the contras are not based in Honduras and that it does not know about their supply lines.

But if the aid is voted down, Honduran officials fear that the contra army -- 18,000 strong by its leaders' claims -- might break up and pose a major threat to law and order.

Recent statements by US Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger have drawn embarrassing attention to the Hon-duran government's relations with the ``Nicaraguan Democratic Force'' (FDN) guerrillas camped along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border.

Foreign Minister Carlos L'o-pez Contreras' response that ``officially'' Honduras ``is not . . . a sanctuary nor will it be used to channel aid to insurgent groups'' met with scepticism among observers here.

``By adding the word `officially,' he [Mr. L'opez] seems to be saying almost as clearly as can be said that unofficially they [Honduras] have agreed'' to facilitate contra aid, said one senior European diplomat.

This readiness to assist US policymakers in their campaign against Nicaragua's Sandinista government ``has damaged Honduras' image in Latin America,'' says one Honduran Foreign Ministry official. Continued US aid to the contras, he adds, ``would put us in a very difficult position internationally, because everyone believes Shultz's word over L'opez contras.''

This official's fears were shared by Carlos Roberto Reina, a leading dissident in the ruling Liberal party, which won last November's elections. ``Hon-duran foreign policy over the past four years has suffered from a lot of inexactitudes,'' Mr. Reina complains. ``If we maintain this duality of words and deeds, it will give Honduras the worst possible image.''

Should the $100 million not be forthcoming -- $70 million of which is earmarked for military assistance and $30 million for ``humanitarian'' assistance -- incoming President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo may have more than an image problem on his hands.

``This year will be the final straight,'' says FDN spokesman Frank Arana. Although confident that the US Congress will approve the military aid to his fighters, he also believes that ``this will be the last money. We have to win or lose this year.''

Should the contras lose, the prospect of ``being left with an irremovable burden'' of thousands of armed men ``has always been a worry to the Hondurans,'' the European diplomat said.

``This is a preoccupation here, that the contras might be left without food, without clothes, or medicine,'' adds Roberto Suazo Tom'e, Honduras' Foreign Ministry official responsible for Central American affairs.

Major Napole'on Santos, an Armed Forces spokesman, says the Army ``is aware of the problem and a little fearful of it.''

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