Diplomats rap timing of US jet delivery to Honduras

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Honduras is scheduled to take delivery Tuesday of the first two of 12 modern fighter planes purchased from the United States. Diplomats here agree the F-5s do not represent a significant increase in Honduras's military power. But several of them voice concern at the timing of the action - which comes as the Central American peace plan is in motion to reduce military tensions in the region.

``In terms of the balance of power, the F-5s don't make much difference,'' says a Western diplomat.

They are, however, an important symbol.

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``Within the framework of peace, they are another obstacle,'' says a Central American diplomat.

After years of negotiations, final US approval of the sale came last June. In August, the five Central American nations signed the peace plan now under way.

For the jets ``to arrive at this moment when they are discussing peace, it could appear that Honduras wants to develop its armaments so at some point it could be aggressive,'' the Central American diplomat says.

``The planes don't have any great relevance,'' says Col. Manuel Enrique Suarez Benavides, the Honduran military's chief spokesman. ``Our Air Force will always maintain the level of air superiority it has always had.''

After the Reagan administration announced the sale last May, some US congressmen tried to block the purchase, arguing it would escalate tensions.

In a recent interview, a Nicaraguan government official said: ``These airplanes give Nicaragua the moral authority to acquire advanced airplanes.'' The US has consistently said that the presence of high-performance aircraft in Nicaragua would be unacceptable and has threatened to destroy any that are moved there.

Honduras and the Reagan administration claim the F-5s are needed for Honduras to maintain air superiority and offset the Sandinistas' advantage in ground troops. The Sandinistas have more than 100,000 men under arms while all branches of the Honduran military, including police forces, number only about 20,000.

Developed in the 1960s, the F-5 can be used as an interceptor or for air support of ground troops. The $75-million cost will be deducted over four years from US military aid (about $85 million a year) to Honduras. The planes will be delivered in four installments over the next two years.

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