Attacking Nicaragua's rural projects: part of contra strategy. American killed by contras worked in `high-risk' area

``It was almost inevitable that something like this would occur.'' American Benjamin Linder's death Tuesday at the hands of Nicaraguan contra rebels was unusual in only one respect, points out his friend Ed Griffin-Nolan: the victim's nationality.

``This war has been killing thousands of people a year,'' adds Mr. Griffin-Nolan, and anyone living in the mountains of northern Nicaragua, local or foreign, is liable to rebel attacks.

Linder, a 27-year-old graduate of the University of Washington, had been working in Nicaragua as a mechanical engineer for four years. He died from shrapnel wounds when contras attacked his team of rural electrification workers as they sat taking notes in a field, one of the survivors said.

Protesting to Washington over the incident on Tuesday night, Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann said Linder's death underlined ``the US government's efforts to try to destroy the economic and social development programs the Nicaraguan people are carrying out.''

Linder had known that by helping to bring electricity to remote villages, he had become a special target of the contras. A Nicaraguan woman recently kidnapped by the rebels, and who later escaped, had warned him the contras were deliberately going after his team, Linder told a reporter shortly before his death.

``The targeting of social-service people has been going on for a long time,'' says Griffin-Nolan, local head of Witness for Peace, a church-backed group that opposes US policy in Nicaragua. The group stations volunteers around the country to monitor contra activities.

Linder's fellow Americans here ``are outraged, but not necessarily shocked'' by his death, Griffin-Nolan says. ``We all knew Ben was in one of the highest-risk areas.''

The contras warned last May they regarded ``all foreigners who come to implant communism in Nicaragua'' as legitimate targets.

The specific threat to their lives prompted Linder and his colleagues to carry weapons when they travelled, Linder had told a reporter. But it was unclear whether Linder was armed during Tuesday's attack.

Linder was the 10th foreigner working with the Sandinista government to die in a contra attack since 1983.

Several thousand Americans and Western Europeans, known as internacionalistas, have chosen to work here to show their support for the Sandinista government. And several hundred young Americans like Linder have taken long-term jobs.

Some work on independently financed development projects, others work directly for the government. Scores work in ministry offices, helping to plan policy, while others take more ``hands on'' employment in the countryside as doctors, technicians, and mechanics.

Many are members of the Committee of US Citizens Living in Nicaragua, formed, according to one of its brochures, ``because of our strong opposition to the policy of the US toward Nicaragua and its revolution. We think the war against Nicaragua is criminal and hypocritical.''

The committee was scheduled to demonstrate outside the US Embassy here yesterday, after an interview with Ambassador Harry Bergold. ``We want to express our outrage at what has happened, and to lay the blame clearly on the US doorstep,'' said a spokesman.

That position echoed the stance Mr. d'Escoto adopted in his diplomatic note to Washington. Protesting the ``criminal and terrorist character of US policy,'' he said his government ``holds the US government directly responsible'' for Linder's death.

[In Washington yesterday, Reuters report that Vice-President George Bush, when asked whether he objected to Americans volunteering on projects in Nicaragua, said: ``No, not particularly.'']

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