SAN PEDRO DE LOVAGO, NICARAGUA — MORE than 100 field commanders of the Nicaraguan contra rebels disarmed in a public ceremony Wednesday - ending nearly a decade of warfare and United States efforts to oust the Sandinistas, and signaling a larger demobilization of the nation's Army. Top rebel leader Israel Galeano, known as ``Franklin,'' was among the last of nearly 19,000 contras who have surrendered their weapons since early May.
``We are honored to appear before the Nicaraguan people and say, `Mission accomplished,''' Galeano said at the ceremony attended by President Violeta Chamorro in this village in central Nicaragua.
Mrs. Chamorro praised the end of the disarmament process, and said the next phase in ``true national reconciliation'' will begin with the reduction in the size of the Sandinista armed forces. ``The Sandinista military will gradually demobilize too, if possible, so that we can have just a small police force as in Costa Rica,'' she declared to cheering spectators in this village, which has long supported the contras' anti-Sandinista cause.
Several weeks ago Chamorro announced a plan to reduce the armed forces by August to under 41,000 soldiers, down from a total of 96,660 in January. Thousands of drafted soldiers left the Army after the Sandinista election defeat in February. The ranks thinned even more when Chamorro abolished the compulsory draft, bringing the current total to approximately 60,000, according to Army Gen. Humberto Ortega. After her April 25 inauguration, Chamorro asked General Ortega, brother of ex-President Daniel Ortega, to remain as head of the armed forces to oversee the Army cuts in a decision that drew heavy criticism. The contras even threatened to renege on a plan to disarm unless Ortega stepped down.
But Chamorro was able to persuade the rebels by assuring them she had the authority to direct Humberto Ortega to reduce the Army ranks. Chamorro administration officials say that Mr. Ortega, one of the most visible of Sandinista leaders, will stay at least as long as necessary to carry out the plan.
``We know this is necessary for the good of the country,'' Ortega said after Chamorro announced the plan. ``The reduction will comply with the different peace agreements, especially now in view of the dismantling of the contras as a military force.''
One potential sticking point is the estimated 100,000 armed civilian ``militias'' on Sandinista-founded farm cooperatives. Contra leaders say they still pose a security threat to demobilized rebels in their home communities. Observers believe that cooperative members may resist disarmament suspecting that the government may want cooperative land returned to former owners.
Partly to offset security concerns, Chamorro agreed to allow the former rebels to set up special ``development communities'' in two areas in the countryside. The government will use foreign aid money for these communities, including some of the $300 million in economic aid approved in the United States Congress.
The Chamorro administration has also promised to help resettle Sandinista Army veterans. ``As in any army, when officers retire they get a pension,'' said Army Major Mario Torres. ``But of course people also make their own plans. In my case I've started a transport business.''
Torres says military officials realize that with the war's end and Chamorro's victory, the armed forces inevitably have to be reduced.
``We fought all these years for the freedom to live in our communities and farm,'' said former contra Antonio Centeno, after arriving home in the northern town of El Jicaro.
Earlier this week the rebels handed over 62 ``Red-eye'' anti-aircraft missiles, the heaviest weaponry in their arsenal, after weeks of speculation that they were only surrendering lighter arms. Several small groups of contras have still refused to disarm, although United Nations officials say they expect that these last hold-outs will demobilize soon.