Rumors of Salvador coup fly as Army loses ground to rebels

A series of Salvadorean military defeats to the guerrillas, friction with the United States Embassy, and working-class unrest have created a government crisis. El Salvador is flooded with rumors of an impending coup.

The government is denying that a coup is imminent on radio and in the local papers. But the clandestine rebel radio station has reported for the past three days that Gen. Jaime Abdul Gutierrez has seized power and will force provisional President Alvaro Magana out of office.

The radio reports that Gutierrez, one of two military leaders in the ''reformist'' coup of 1979, has received US backing.

Gutierrez has denied the charges but added, ''Any change would have to be for the better.''

The general, who remains on active duty but does not have a command, recently suggested there is enough dissatisfaction within the military to oust the government.

Coup rumors here were fueled by the unexpected visit of four high-ranking US officials to the capital in the past four days, including Undersecretary for Defense Fred Ikle.

Rumors are part of daily life in this country where information is tightly controlled and often manipulated.

A coup might have been thwarted, might be in the works, or may never have been considered. Any of these are possible since hard information is often unavailable.

Nevertheless, it is clear the government is facing its severest test of powersince taking control in the 1982 elections.

Laborers, whose salaries have been frozen since 1979, have difficulty affording basic commodities for their families. Food prices have doubled and even tripled in the past four years. The unemployment rate is between 40 and 50 percent.

The month-long stalemate in the Constituent Assembly over the agrarian reform is interpreted by proponents as the result of an ultra-right effort to stymie political reforms. Many observers here, including Gutierrez, now view the assembly as ineffectual and powerless.

The new military offensive by the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front is proving disastrous for the Army. Insurgent forces have taken over 60 towns in the last two months. There are reports of new recruits fleeing from battle or waiting for rebels to withdraw before reoccupying villages.

Two hundred troops in the northern province of Morazan were reported by sources there to have refused orders to go into combat a few weeks ago.

Salvadorean sources attribute the military failures to a lack of motivation by both troops and officers.

The crisis has been accompanied by a series of threats, abductions, and murders by death squads against leading intellectuals, church officials, union leaders, and even government officials.

''The oligarchy,'' says one observer says, ''is finding that they can no longer stifle the opposition through terror. Rather than understand this . . . they are striking out against everyone around them. . . . They still have enough power and enough venom to make the next few months some of the worst in the history of El Salvador.''

In the guerrilla-controlled zones, insurgents are full alert. Guerrilla troops in the province of San Miguel claim the US is preparing an invasion by Guatemalan and possibly Honduran troops into El Salvador.

''I am sure,'' said a guerrilla who once worked as a busboy in Washington, D.C., ''these foreign mercenaries will have no more desire to confront us than the Salvadorean Army.''

The rebel radio has reported that 4,000 Guatemalan troops have massed in four border towns. The radio reports that Honduran soldiers are positioned in Jicaro Galan on the road that runs west to El Salvador and east to Nicaragua. The guerrilla broadcaster said they were unsure if the troops in Jicaro Galan were being massed for attacks against their forces or the Sandinistas.

This invasion, the rebels claim, has been approved by Gutierrez.

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