Salvador mounts pre-election military, political offensive

With controversial balloting for a constituent assembly just two weeks off, El Salvador's beleaguered government has launched a twin offensive aimed at undercutting leftist guerrilla strength and defusing criticism of its human rights record:

* Several thousand soldiers are fanning out through eastern Morazan Province in extensive search-and-destroy missions, looking for guerrillas and their base camps.

* Political leaders in San Salvador are offering unlimited amnesty and other incentives to entice guerrillas to lay down their arms in what is described as a display of government generosity.

The two offensives - one military, one political - have yet to produce any substantial results. There has been little contact with the guerrillas, except for clashes in the eastern towns of San Miguel and San Vicente, and apparently few, if any, guerrilla defectors have heeded the pardon offer.

But official sources in San Salvador say the government means to pursue both offensives. There is speculation that the government is also bent on publicizing the twin goals in hopes that this will help provide a climate of calm for the elections and deflect criticism of the government from abroad.

The government knows that its image has been tarnished by reports of significant guerrilla victories and alleged government repression. In Washington , the Reagan administration has been hard put to certify that the military-civilian government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte is both capable of winning on the battlefield and is not guilty of human-rights violations.

Salvadoran government officials say the guerrillas' battlefield activities are overrated and that reports of guerrilla victories are part of a massive guerrilla-sponsored public relation hype. They point to the limited number of engagements with the guerrillas in recent months and argue that guerrilla strength is highly overstated.

Moreover, reporters in El Salvador are hard-pressed these days to find battles, although there has been a continuing series of incidents: a government troop column ambushed, a goverment outpost attacked, a power line blown up. In short, guerrilla warfare.

But government spokesmen say that there has been a decline in the number of such incidents in recent weeks. Despite guerrilla threats to disrupt the election campaign and the voting March 28, these threats have not resulted in significant guerrilla activity.

The current government search for guerrillas in Morazan Province is aimed at stemming such activity. It is similar to last week's battle around Guazapa Volcano near the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador. That encounter eventually forced the guerrillas to flee the area and left at least 100 of their number either dead or captured.

All this, government spokesmen say, is a good omen for the March 28 balloting , but they do not discount the possibility of fresh guerrilla activity. The election, of course, is two weeks away and no one can be sure the guerrillas will not launch some sort of major battlefield offensive or a series of terrorist incidents beforehand.

The current decline in guerrilla activity, particularly if it continues, is likely to take the heat off the Duarte government to negotiate with the guerrillas, something it does not want to do.

The government has been under mounting pressure from outside El Salvador to negotiate - and the recent initiative of Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo to defuse the Central American cauldron, includes negotiations between the government and the guerrillas, stirred a lot of interest.

If it appears the guerrillas are not as strong as they seemed in recent months or if they are on the run, some of that pressure to negotiate would be lessened - or so the Salvadoran government reasons.

Meanwhile, the government appears totally committed to the election process, arguing that the vote will be honest and saying it will respect the results. It does not want the voting interrupted.

At the same time, the government continues to face criticism because leftists are not included in the balloting. The government says the leftists could have joined, but decided against it, knowing they would lose. Potential leftist candidates, however, counter that there were no guarantees of their safety in the campaigning and therefore could not consider running.

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