Honduras low-key on contra clash. Tries to avoid confrontation with Nicaragua as US steps up aid

The Honduran government is keeping its head down as debate flies back and forth over the size and scope of the alleged Nicaraguan incursion into Honduran territory. Its behavior all week indicates a great reluctance to create a major confrontation with Nicaragua. The government did not even confirm the Nicaraguan incursion until after the White House announced the incident Monday. And even when the Nicaraguan forces were reported to be pulling out at mid-week, the government continued to watch its words carefully.

Alluding to past Sandinista border violations, Foreign Minister Carlos L'opez said Tuesday, ``These things happen. We mustn't create alarm or a warlike climate.'' And in a similar low-key vein, President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo left Tegucigalpa later that day to spend a few days on Honduras's northern coast for Easter vacation.

But some Hondurans and other observers here see the fighting in Honduras between Nicaraguan troops and the contras as an unexpected bonus for the Reagan administration -- as a ready-made example of Sandinista ``aggression'' just when the administration is pushing hard in the US Congress for $100 million in aid for the contras.

And, if the United States figure of 1,500 Sandinista soldiers is correct, this week's incursion is the largest Nicaraguan advance into Honduras since the ``contra'' rebels began operations in 1982. The most serious previous such encounter occurred last May when a reported 800 Nicaraguan soldiers crossed the border and fought pitched battles with the contras on the outskirts of the main guerrilla camps.

Meanwhile, the Honduran government's denials that it shelters or has any relations at all with the contras look increasingly threadbare.

Earlier this month, one of the last shreds of Honduran ``deniability'' was torn away when US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State George Shultz, and other administration officials spoke publicly about Honduras's role in the contra war. Nonetheless, when asked this week if the Nicaraguans had entered Honduras in order to attack the contra camps, government spokesman Lisandro Quezada continued to insist that, ``Our territory is not a base for anyone.''

The United States itself is avoiding any direct role in the border area fighting. But its indirect role has been quickly stepped up.

Early Wednesday, US-supplied and piloted Chinook and Huey helicopters began airlifting between 500 to 600 Honduran troops to a spot several miles from the combat zone in El Para'iso Province. The helicopter crews were drawn from the contingent of US troops stationed at the Palmerola air base, about 125 miles west of the area.

US personnel will merely ferry Honduran troops, and will not come close to the fighting, a US Embassy official said. No other US troops in Honduras will be involved in the border operation, said the US official.

Besides providing helicopter transports, President Reagan has ordered $20 million in emergency military assistance for Honduras. This aid will reportedly include artillery, antiaircraft weapons, and training. Gen. John Galvin, Chief of the US Southern Command in Panama, arrived in Honduras Tuesday to advise government leaders during the period of heightened tensions.

About 4,500 US soldiers are participating in several joint maneuvers with the Honduran military in different parts of the country. Roughly 125 miles to the northeast of the Sandinista-contra fighting, US Army engineers for several weeks have been building an airstrip 15 miles from the Nicaraguan border capable of handling C-130 transport planes. After the strip is finished, several hundred Special Forces and Ranger troops will hold counterinsurgency training seven miles from the border.

US officials in Washington said the current crisis began Saturday when 1,500 elite Sandinista counterinsurgency troops crossed into El Para'iso Province in an assault on the main Honduran camps of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the main contra force. About 6,000 rebels were in the bases at the time of the attack, according to sources close to the FDN. Many Honduran civilians reportedly fled their villages to escape the fighting. The size of the Sandinista force and the extensive combat could not be independently confirmed, because the border area is off limits to reporters.

The Nicaraguan government flatly denies that any of its troops entered Honduras, although Sandinista Army Chief of Staff Joaquin Cuadra said there have been intense battles with the contras recently near the Honduran border. Cuadra also admitted that ``When combats are near the border, it happens that artillery falls over Honduran territory.''

Informed sources close to the contras say the Nicaraguan soldiers, at first reported to be trapped by contra forces, began returning to Nicaragua Tuesday.

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