Signs of Military Offensive Are Few

End of the cease-fire seems tied more to political maneuvers than military objectives. NICARAGUA'S WAR FRONT

WAR seems simply an extension of politics by other means here following last week's lifting of a cease-fire. An anticipated Sandinista offensive has yet to materialize here on the scale of the last nationally coordinated offensive of March 1988.

Many here expected such an offensive after President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's announcement last Wednesday that he would not renew a 19-month-old unilateral cease-fire following a steep increase in the number of contra rebels infiltrating from base camps in Honduras.

That this has not occurred implies ``that all this about the cease-fire is political and not military,'' says a Western diplomat in Managua.

The primary motive for the ruling Sandinistas dropping the cease-fire is to get meaningful movement on a plan to demobilize the contras from their base camps in Honduras, say several European and Latin American diplomats and other observers.

The Western diplomat says the Sandinistas ``want progress on demobilization, and ending the cease-fire was their manner of getting the world's attention'' by first announcing it at a Pan-American summit in Costa Rica Oct. 28.

The Sandinistas are carrying out military actions, primarily in the central province of Chontales. But a trip in the northern mountains this weekend found little sign of large troop movements or widespread combat.

Capt. Juan Molinares, head of a ``light hunter'' battalion here, 135 miles north of Managua, said his troops had engaged in six fire-fights with the contras since Wednesday. He said two of his soldiers had been killed and nine injured, and six contras were killed. The most recent fighting occurred Friday morning, but lasted only 30 minutes.

Asked about plans for a larger offensive, he said: ``We will soon have an important response'' to the contra infiltration.

Captain Molinares said his troops were looking for contra rebels in a densely mountainous, sparsely populated area north of San Jos'e de Bocay, adjacent to the Honduran border. The area is about a six-day hike from the contra camps there, he said.

The contras have infiltrated an additional 300 to 400 troops in that region in the past several weeks, he said, raising the total to 500 to 600.

According to Molinares, the rebels are increasing their presence there to lower the number of troops in Honduras and thus drag out the contra demobilization plan signed by the five Central American presidents last August. They also want to ``deepen'' their presence there, he said, in case the Sandinistas cancel the elections and more military aid from the United States would be forthcoming.

But most diplomats and observers in Managua say they believe the Sandinistas intend to hold clean elections.

``The contras can lengthen'' the demobilization plan ``by keeping a lot of troops in Nicaragua and rotating them'' back to camps in Honduras, Molinares added. The contras are also passing through this area on their way to Chontales, he said.

Contra commanders in Honduras have said they intend to send as many rebels as possible back into Nicaragua.

``If there are no troops here, there is no demobilization plan,'' because there would be no one in Honduras, said ``Commander Jhonson'' in a recent interview in Honduras.

The contras also say they want to have their troops in Nicaragua ``guarantee'' that the elections next February are free and fair. The government, not surprisingly, rejects that claim and says scores of observers from the UN, the Organization of American States, and private groups will guarantee the electoral process.

The Sandinistas claim the contras want to disrupt the elections, and accuse them of electioneering for the main National Opposition Union (UNO). Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the UNO presidential candidate, is the favored candidate of the US.

Though letting the cease-fire lapse was mostly a diplomatic initiative, there are military objectives behind last week's actions, say army officers and observers.

``The contras want to settle in remote regions to intimidate and assassinate the social base of the revolution,'' Col. Manuel Salvatierra, military chief of the northern Sixth Region, said Friday. This means Sandinista activists would be limited in their movements during the campaign in these parts if the contras are allowed to succeed.

The military actions so far are meant to drive the contras back, or at least keep them from settling in. But Colonel Salvatierra added that this was done by redeploying troops already in the region; he was not talking about ``a large operation.''

But depending on how events turn out in New York in coming weeks, that could change. ``If they don't get what they want from the UN and the meeting, they could decide to go all out'' militarily, said the Western diplomat. He was referring to a meeting at the UN proposed proposed by the Sandinistas for Nov. 9-10. The Sandinistas are seeking:

A meeting with the contras, the Honduran goverment, and the international commission set up to oversee the contra demobilization to advance the plan.

Approval in the Security Council of a plan to deploy peace-keeping troops along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border.

The Honduran government has so far declined to attend. But their presence is not seen by the Sandinistas as crucial, says a government official.

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