BAGUA, PERU — NESTOR, a 19-year-old Peruvian soldier, sits in the shade of a hut on the edge of the narrow, dirt airstrip of Valor, Peru, cradling his AK-47. With other fellow conscripts, he is waiting to be flown into the dense tropical jungle where his orders are to join the assault on the Tiwinza base, currently under Ecuadoran control.
``I've seen combat before ... but this is different,'' he says.
In the past two weeks, since the outbreak of hostilities and mutual accusations of aggression, the long-standing Peru-Ecuador border conflict has escalated abruptly. Neither side has declared war, but there are now thousands of troops in the 130 square-mile zone, as fighting grows worse. Diplomatic negotiations are deadlocked.
Visiting the wounded in the combat zone on Wednesday, Peru's President Alberto Fujimori said national morale was high. He announced that 30 Peruvian soldiers and six pilots had died, but ``the short-term objective of dislodging Ecuadoran troops from Peruvian territory is imminent,'' he claimed. But unconfirmed reports in Peru say 150 soldiers have died on both sides in the assuault on Tiwinza alone.
It is also becoming increasingly clear that the Ecuadoreans are well-established and better prepared in the disputed area. Many of their positions are surrounded by minefields, and deeply entrenched Ecuadoran troops can pick off Peruvian troops.
Peru's military chiefs continue to pull reinforcements into the zone. For the past week, the Bagua airstrip has throbbed with activity as Antonov transport planes ferry supplies and ammunition from Lima and troops from all of the country. As the planes land, soldiers jump out, chanting slogans denouncing Ecuadoran ``treachery.'' And as casualties rose, more tents and beds were unloaded.
At Bagua, women anxiously wait for news of their loved ones. ``How have we got into such a deep conflict?'' asks Amelia Vives. ``Every year there are skirmishes ... but never anything like this. I don't understand.'' Ms. Vives's puzzlement is shared by most outsiders.
The conflict has its roots in the post-colonial period when large areas of the uninhabited Amazon basin were claimed by both countries. After losing a 1941 war, Ecuador was obliged to accept the Rio de Janeiro Protocol of 1942, which sharply curtailed its historical ambition of sovereign access to the Amazon. It claims to have lost a third of its territory by signing the treaty.
Peru is clinging to that protocol. The guarantors of the pact - the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile - met last week in Rio de Janeiro to seek a resolution. So far, their efforts to find a mutually acceptable basis for a cease-fire have foundered.
Talks are continuing. But the Peruvian position is hardening.
``If diplomatic negotiations fail, we shall show that the Peruvian Army has sufficient force to dislodge the invader,'' Mr. Fujimori made clear several days ago.
Anaylsts and foreign observers in Peru fear that the conflict may not end with the recovery of Tiwinza. ``Now the military have the bit between their teeth, and with the nationalistic fervor that's being whipped up ... it's going to be even harder to reach a negotiated settlement,'' says a Western diplomat based in Lima.
Meanwhile, Gen. Nicolas Hermoza Rios, a top military leader, has issued a somber warning. ``We are ready and prepared for a very extended war.'' In the coastal border area near the town of Tumbes, massed Peruvian and Ecuadoran infantry and tanks are at a face-to-face standoff. Peruvian submarines and warships patrol offshore.
The only area where fighting is currently taking place is the relatively small jungle zone north of Bagua. Here, on the slopes of the disputed ``Cordillera del Condor,'' small patrols are engaged in fierce man-to-man combat.
``This is virtually impenetrable jungle,'' explains a major who had previously served at one of the Peruvian guard-posts close to the disputed frontier. ``Helicopters drop the men as close as they can, but it means hacking your way though dense undergrowth ... to reach the combat zone. It's a true green hell.''
Peru has many more helicopters than Ecuador. Yet it has difficult deploying them since Ecuador reportedly possesses sophisticated antiaircraft missiles that have already downed at least one Peruvian aircraft.