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Vying for allegiance of Nicaragua's Indians. Contras want to establish eastern front

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1987

Mocor'on, Honduras

On the muddy banks of the Mocor'on River and in the dense forests of eastern Honduras, a fierce battle is under way for the hearts and minds of 20,000 Nicaraguan Miskito Indian refugees. The outcome could determine the contra rebels' future on Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast. The Mosquito Coast, as it was known to the English pirates who roamed its length two centuries ago, could prove the Sandinista government's Achilles' heel, military experts say, if the contras are able to exploit the situation. Living in villages scattered throughout the remote region, the Miskitos have mistrusted the Sandinista revolution from the start. A political tinderbox for Managua, the coast could become a dangerous military threat as the contras' eastern front, rebel planners say.

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But divisions among Indian leaders have so far dashed those hopes, and in the refugee communities dotting this distant region of Honduras, rumors of a new power struggle are flying thick and fast.

Time and time again, the key contenders' names crop up in conversations with Miskitos about their hopes for the future.

In the forefront is Steadman Fagoth, a former Miskito contra leader who is known to have returned in secret recently to Honduras, after more than a year of exile in the United States.

Fighting to retain its influence in the face of Mr. Fagoth's comeback is Kisan, the organization led by Wycliffe Diego. Kisan is the Miskito partner in the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), which groups all the contra forces that are US-backed.

Watching carefully from his base in Costa Rica is Brooklyn Rivera, an old rival of Fagoth's for Miskito loyalties. Mr. Rivera's Misurasata organization has long rejected any links with UNO because it is simply pro-Indian rights, not counterrevolutionary.

In the shadows backstage stand the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Honduran Army, playing roles unclear even to the key actors in the drama.

Inside Nicaragua, the Sandinista government - in hopes of pacifying the coast - is anxiously trying to assuage the bitterness provoked by its 1982 forced relocations of the Miskitos by offering a plan for Indian autonomy. The Sandinistas forced thousands of Indians from their homes along the Coco River in an effort to remove civilian support for the Miskito Indian rebels and to create a free-fire zone. The government allowed them to return in 1985.

New uncertainties have arisen, say Miskito community leaders and Western relief workers here, because of Kisan's failures. Widely regarded as a brainchild of the CIA, Kisan was created in September 1985 at an Indian assembly. It was designed to unite the fractured Indian exile groups, and to fight as UNO's eastern flank, Mr. Diego said at the time.

But the organization has deeply disappointed the Miskitos with its failure to seriously engage the Sandinistas in combat and its rough treatment of refugees.

``Kisan has done nothing except violate the refugees' human rights,'' says a relief worker here. In dozens of interviews around the Mosquitia, the Indians' traditional homeland along Nicaragua's and Honduras's eastern coast, Miskitos recalled how Kisan troops had forcibly recruited young men into their ranks and threatened and beaten refugees who refused to do their bidding.

One refugee, who asked to be identified only by the pseudonym Juan Rodr'iguez for fear of reprisals, said he was kidnapped by a group of Kisan rebels one night in August, taken to a remote spot, and repeatedly beaten with rifle butts. ``They thought I could tell them where to find Tiles,'' a former Kisan commander now negotiating with the Sandinistas. Mr. Rodr'iguez says he favors a negotiated settlement of Miskito grievances against the Sandinistas, a route Kisan rejected when it joined UNO and won official US support.

Widespread anger at such behavior has robbed Mr. Diego of most of his following. ``Some people back Kisan, but more people fear it,'' a refugee official says.

Says Brooklyn Rivera: ``There is a leadership vacuum in the Mosquitia, and Kisan cannot fill it. Fagoth comes back to Honduras, and he can [return]'' because of his charisma and history of leadership.

Those qualities counted for little 15 months ago, observers familiar with Miskito affairs say. Fagoth was expelled from Honduras after running amok and holding three members of the Miskito Council of Elders hostage. The assembly called days later to create Kisan rang with denunciations of his cruelty, rages, and reputation for ordering the murder of anyone who ran afoul of him.