The open 'covert war' in Nicaragua

Central America's not-so-secret war begins about 19 miles south of here along the Nicaraguan border.

Hondurans who travel frequently to locations near the border say that former Nicaraugan National Guardsmen have intensified their attacks against the leftist-led Sandinista regime of Nicaragua and are now striking deeper than ever into that country.

American officials located elsewhere in the region say that many of the former National Guardmen have left Honduras and are now operating permanently from camps inside Nicaragua. The officials also contend that the anti-Sandinist forces have broadened their base of support as well as their leadership.

It was impossible to confirm the latter point from here. But Hondurans do say that some - not all - of the ex-guardsmen's camps inside Honduras have been dispersed. They say that this is because of press reporting on the guardsmen present inside Honduras and because of protests against their activities arising in both the American and Honduran congresses.

According to a number of recent press reports, the US is secretly supporting the anti-Sandinist forces to counter Soviet and Cuban influence in the region. Much of the criticism of this secret war is based on the allegation that the US is backing the former Nicaraguan National Guard, an institution that is hated in much of Nicaragua. It would thus make sense for the US to encourage the broadening of the anti-Sandinist forces, which is what some American officials contend has already occurred.

On Dec. 8, however, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of an amendment to the defense budget that would prohibit the Pentagon and the US Central Intelligence Agency from arming the anti-Sandinist forces with the aim of overthrowing the Nicaraguan government.

What is clear from here is that the US-supplied Honduran Army is supporting the anti-Sandinist forces. It is also clear that these forces are well-armed.

The American aim in backing anti-Sandinist operations seems to be to harass and ''bleed'' the Sandinista regime rather than to try to overthrow it. Within Nicaragua, the effect has been to force the Sandinistas to divert scarce resources and energy into military efforts and away from a hard-pressed economy.

Reports from Nicaragua indicate that the anti-Sandinist forces - the Nicaraguans call them counterrevolutionaries, or ''contras'' - are now operating in larger units than they were before. According to Nicaraguan press reports, the ex-guardsmen now concentrate as many as several hundred men in their attacks and are supported by 60mm and 81mm mortar fire.

The intensified fighting inside Nicaragua has brought increasing numbers of Nicaraguan refugees, most of them women and children, into Honduras. Many of the women among the refugees have been able to find work harvesting the coffee crop here. But members of Honduran relief agencies fear that once the crop is harvested early next year the refugees will become completely dependent on these agencies for their food, shelter, and clothing.

Hondurans in the dusty, mountain-encircled town of Danli say the influx of refugees has resulted in an increase in crime in the area. They do not like what they see happening in Nicaragua, which, in their view, amounts to a drift to the left. But they also see no good resulting for Honduras from its backing for the guardsmen who once fought for the rightist Nicaraguan president, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who was ousted by the Sandinistas in 1979.

The refugees, meanwhile, say they had no choice but to leave Nicaragua. Some said they were related to guardsmen who had left for Honduras before they did. Others said they were accused by the Sandinistas of giving assistance to the ex-guardsmen.

The refugees are among the most miserable this reporter has ever seen. They cross the border with little more than the clothes they are wearing. The children appear to be suffering from severe malnutrition.

In Danli, more than 200 of the refugees were jammed into the Masonic lodge. Some huddled over wood fires, others slept on the stone floor.

One refugee woman who recently crossed the border into Honduras explained: ''They threatened to kill us because we gave food to the contras.''

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