Nicaraguan rebels face tougher job attracting recruits. Small numbers of contras are even said to be deserting

A year after the Nicaraguan contra rebels boasted they would increase their forces to 30,000, they are having difficulty finding new recruits. In fact, some rebels are opting to leave the six-year civil war behind. Although the number of deserters appearing in Honduran refugee camps since the beginning of the year probably does not exceed 100, UN sources say, this is considered a record number.

According to the rebels, recruiting inside Nicaragua has become increasingly tough since Nicaragua's Sandinista government has forcibly relocated civilians outside war zones. Some foreign press reports from Nicaragua say that up to 6,500 civilians - some, rebel supporters - have been taken this year from the area around the town of Nueva Guinea, in southern Nicaragua. The rebels say this means there is no civilian recruiting pool available to contra columns in that area.

The rebels, who say they currently number 15,000, are also having problems attracting fresh recruits from Nicaraguan refugee camps in Honduras. They have traditionally recruited some refugees, despite camp organizers' efforts to prevent any political activity. In recent months the rebels have become more overt in their recruiting approach as the refugees themselves have displayed a more politicized attitude.

One day last month, for example, UN refugee officials asked Honduran police to arrest a Nicaraguan refugee who had been recruiting refugees to fight the Sandinistas. But the man escaped arrest after a group of pro-contra refugees began to stone police, eyewitnesses and UN officials say.

The episode at the Nicaraguan refugee camp at Jacaleapa, Honduras, highlights problems the rebels are having in bolstering their forces as they come to the end of $100 million in United States aid on Sept. 30.

Still, the rebels say that hundreds of Nicaraguans are voicing their opposition to the Marxist government by volunteering to fight. Recruits usually volunteer in groups of five or six, says an informed source here, usually after a victorious contra military operation.

Visits to contra bases over the last two years by this reporter shows a rebel army consisting largely of Nicaraguan peasants, although there are former soldiers of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard in every unit. Most fighters have been seriously alienated by the Sandinistas. Their biggest complaints are being forced onto Sandinista collective farms or not being able to practice their religion as they would like.

Another method the contras use to fill their ranks is forcible recruitment by kidnapping civilians. Such actions have provoked consistent charges of human rights violations against the rebels in the last six years of war, according to an independent human rights official here.

Rebel leaders and US officials are anxious for the practices to stop because of the ill will it creates towards the rebels inside Nicaragua and in the US. According to the rebels, forced recruiting is down. That, however, cannot be independently confirmed.

In a July 1985 visit to the base camps of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest contra army, reporters met a teen-age girl who had been kidnapped by a contra column, because, she said, her boy friend belonged to the Sandinista militia. She was serving the contra cause as a cook. In furtive whispers, she nervously asked the reporters to take her with them when they left. Trying to comply with her wishes, the reporters were pointedly told to mind their own business.

In a subsequent trip, one of the reporters saw the girl, pregnant. She would not talk to the reporter whom she had asked for help several months before.

``Forced recruitment has been one of the greatest failures of the resistance,'' said Marta Patricia Boltadano, executive director of the Nicaraguan Association for Human Rights. Formed last October to monitor the human rights record of contra forces, the group was given $3 million out of the $100 million approved for the rebels by Congress last year.

Ms. Baltodano's organization issued its first biannual report last month. In it they detailed the forced recruitment of eight Nicaraguan Mennonites living in Honduras as refugees who were taken from their homes by contra forces. Four of the eight were soon released, two others are still with the rebels and will be released if they so desire and two are missing, the report said.

``Forced recruitment happens. It shouldn't, but there is no way to control it from headquarters,'' said a contra source. Boltadano estimated there have been about 100 cases of contra kidnappings. The independent rights official estimated the number to be several times that.

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