Honduras confirms Nicaraguan troop incursions but downplays situation

The Honduran government confirmed Tuesday that Sandinista troops had entered eastern Honduras, and that it has ordered Honduran soldiers sent to the area ``to protect the population and repel the Nicaraguan troops.'' An official statement cautioned, however, against ``unjustified alarm or worry.'' The communiqu'e also acknowledged that Honduras had requested ``necessary air transport support'' from the United States to help move troops to the site of the alleged incursion.

Despite its decision to send troops to the border, Honduras seems to be trying to downplay what could be a serious situation. ``We have not been invaded by anyone. What has been confirmed is that there have been incursions,'' spokesman Lisandro Quezada said. He denied President Reagan's claim that Honduras had solicited $20 million in emergency military assistance. ``We only requested the air transport,'' Mr. Quezada said.

According to the Honduran statement, Nicaraguan troops crossed the border into Olancho province. Government officials refused to comment on how far the troops had penetrated into Honduras. The US-backed ``contra'' rebels have their main bases in the eastern region of Honduras. US officials in Washington say the Nicaraguans have been locked in combat with the guerrillas since the weekend. But Honduran officials refused to comment on the possible involvement of the contras in the incident. Honduras officially denies that the contras have bases in the country.

Spokesman Quezada suggested that US reports of a large-scale Nicaraguan invasion were ``part of the propagandistic political tactics of the Reagan administration'' in its campaign to win congressional approval of $100 million in contra aid. The US House of Representatives voted down the aid March 13 in a 222 to 210 vote. The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday or Thursday on the $70 million in military aid and $30 million in humanitarian aid to the contras. A US Embassy spokesman had ``no comment'' on Quezada's remarks.

Nicaraguan government officials said Tuesday they could neither confirm nor deny the charges of an incursion. Sources here close to the contras said the contras are engaged in heavy fighting with the Sandinistas in two eastern provinces.

Honduran Government officials said they did not know how many Nicaraguan troops were in Honduras, or when they entered the country. They also refused to say how many Honduran forces would be sent to the border. Honduras normally maintains about 5,000 troops along the entire Nicaragua-Honduras border. The Foreign Ministry has demanded that the Sandinista government immediately withdraw its troops. The Ministry is also preparing protests to be presented to the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

Some observers say that Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo is trying to prevent the situation from escalating into a major military confrontation. The Sandanistas have driven contra forces out of Nicaragua many times in the past four years. This has cause numerous incidents of conflict on the border. Honduras has frequently limited its response to a diplomatic protest. Alluding to previous Sandinista border violations, Foreign Minister Carlos L'opez Contreras said, ``These things happen. We musn't create alarm or a war-like climate.''

Honduran observers said it was surprising that during a meeting of the National Security Council Monday night, HRN -- one of the country's largest radio networks -- conducted a live, 45-minute telephone interview with Manuel Espinoza -- Nicaragua's secretary of information in Managua. After the interview, the station immediately replayed a tape of the entire discussion which touched on a wide variety of bilateral issues.

``It was very significant that they gave so much space to a Sandinista official at that moment,'' said one observer. ``HRN doesn't move without some indication from the government.''

Reports that Honduras may recall its ambassador from managua have not been officially confirmed. US Gen. John Galvin, Commander of the US Southern Command, arrived in here yesterday to consult with government leaders.

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