A well armed military force of as many as 500 anti-Sandinista rebels has penetrated into central Nicaragua. This country's Sandinista government, determined to thwart the rebel drive, has sent several thousand soldiers, backed by armored vehicles, into the region.
Whether the rebel unit escapes or is defeated, its effort is the most audacious yet by counterrevolutionaries. Radio broadcasts by the group, called the Nicaraguan Democratic Front (FDN), claim the group has taken several towns in the south of Matagalpa Province about 75 miles from Managua, the country's capital. A visit to the area proved the rebels had not taken the towns, however.
Stepped-up fighting between the government and counterrevolutionaries, or contrasm as they are called here, began a month ago when FDN forces entered Nicaragua from Honduras. The rebels marched through densely forested, sparsely populated mountains in east central Nicaragua before moving into Matagalpa Province.
Even if the FDN exaggerated claims of success here, it may yet find support in Matagalpa. The Liberal Party of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the dictator overthrown by the Sandinistas, and another opposition party, the Conservatives, were strong in this province. In addition, former junta member turned anti-Sandinista Alfonso Robelo Callejas was politically well organized in Matagalpa before he moved to Costa Rica.
More than 35 soldiers and government supporters have been killed in the past month. Rebels have lost 20 men in battles in the last two weeks, according to the government.
Clashes are reported also in areas closer to the Honduran border. The ruling Sandinista Liberation Front met in special session Friday and will make a declaration this week.
Peasants who have seen the rebels say they are armed with automatic rifles, rocket launchers, and mortars. Dressed in uniforms resembling the Sandinistas', they have radio transceivers and buy food from farmers.
A state security officer in Esquipulas, one of the towns the FDN claimed to have taken, said that 15 contrasm were killed in a clash March 7, in nearby Pueblo Viejo. Arms and documents were captured, including US-made automatic rifles and Honduran identity cards. At least two state farms or cooperatives have been attacked and buildings burned.
On March 11, five farmers and three soldiers were ambushed and murdered near Esquipulas. Reportedly, the counterrevolutionaries do not molest peasants, although some have been drafted as fighters. According to the Sandinista newspaper, 26 farmers were arrested for collaborating with the counterrevolutionaries.
On Feb. 27, the rebels ambushed a militia battalion made up of high school students from the capital, killing 17.
Cuban schoolteachers have been evacuated and the adult education program has been suspended in many areas. By March 18, residents said life was returning to normal around Esquipulas and apparently the rebels have moved east into more rugged terrain. Outside of Esquipulas farmers guarding a bridge pointed out bloodstains beneath the bridge where the five peasants had been killed with bayonets.
''We are ready to fight the contrasm,'' said Huberto Mendez, ''but please tell them in the city that we need better guns and more training.''
They clutched 30-year-old M-1 rifles and said they had spotted moving lights on a hilltop the night before.
Rebel efforts last year to seize part of Nueva Segovia Province along the Honduran border failed, as did attempts to spark an insurrection among the Miskito Indians. Sabotage attacks apparently succeeded only near the border.
Other grounds for possible rebel support in Matagalpa stem from the death of Jorge Salazar, former president of the Coffee Growers' Association, who was killed near Matagalpa in 1980 in a shoot-out with police. Salazar's widow, in exile in Miami, is now a leader of the FDN.
The FDN is a coalition of groups organized by conservative businessman Jose Francisco Cardenal based in Miami. It draws its military strength from troops of the former National Guard of the Somoza dictatorship, who fled Nicaragua to Honduras when the Sandinistas seized power in July 1979.
Many believe the FDN receives arms from the United States government via the Honduran Army. It calls for a rollback of the agrarian reform in Nicaragua including the return of properties confiscated from Somoza (although not all rebels favor this), and release of National Guardsmen jailed by the Sandinistas. It also condemns the literacy campaign as a Marxist-Leninist plot. Since agrarian reform, the jailing of former guardsmen, and the literacy campaign are the most popular Sandinista programs, the FDN may have a hard time gaining a wide following.