Israeli Defense chief Ariel Sharon reportedly signed a military accord with the Honduran armed forces last week that would give the Central American nation sophisticated fighter jets and tanks.
A top-level military source who asked not to be identified told this reporter that General Sharon agreed in a semisecret meeting here to sell Israeli Kfir fighter jets, armored tanks, and Galil assault rifles to the Honduran armed forces.
If the reports are true, the sales would constitute a major escalation of the Central American military buildup. Honduras already has the most advanced Air Force in the region.
According to the military source interviewed by this reporter, the Israel-Honduras military agreement includes weaponry and training for Honduran officers, troops, and pilots. The officer added that a second phase of arms sales may involve more sophisticated weapons, such as missiles.
The first shipments of arms are scheduled to arrive in Honduras in the next three to four months, he said. The officer declined to explain the deal in more detail, saying this would identify him.
In Jerusalem Sunday General Sharon denied reports that he signed an agreement to provide Kfirs and armored tanks. But he said an Israeli mission would be sent to Honduras next month to sign a security agreement.
During General Sharon's three-day trip to Honduras, which involved unprecedented security measures in this country, the defense chief spent nearly four hours closeted with Honduran armed forces chief Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.
General Sharon also flew by military helicopter to La Ceiba on the Atlantic coast, which the Hondurans want to turn into a major military base, and to two military bases in the center of the country to assess military needs.
Observers note that General Sharon and his entourage - which included Gen. David Ivry, head of the Israeli Air Force, and Gen. Aaron Bet Halamchi, director-general of the Defense Ministry - were accorded the full measure of honors usually accorded to a visiting head of state. A government functionary compared Sharon's visit favorably with that of US President Ronald Reagan only two days earlier.
''Sharon's trip was more positive,'' he observed. ''He sold us arms. Reagan only uttered platitudes, explaining that Congress was preventing him from doing more,'' he said.
Military sources say Honduras asked the US for 12 F-5 fighter bombers earlier this year, citing intelligence reports that Nicaragua was about to receive MIG fighters from Moscow. Nicargua announced last month that MIG negotiations have been postponed.
Israel has cooperated militarily with Honduras since 1977. Its sale of French-built Super Mystere combat jets to Honduras made the Honduran Air Force the region's strongest.
The unannounced visit and military accord underline Israel's growing role as US arms broker and proxy in crisis-ridden Central America. Some six weeks ago, Israeli Foreign Minister Itzhak Shamir visited Costa Rica, offering to help with internal security.
Honduras is to send a top-level mission, headed by General Alvarez, to Israel in the near future, according to the source interviewed.