US spotlight irks Hondurans. Officials worry US could push them into conflict with Nicaragua on `contra' issue

Nicaragua's recent attack on anti-Sandinista rebel positions inside Honduras, and the United States' dramatic response to the incident have left the Honduran government exposed and helpless in the face of rising tension, according to local officials and foreign diplomats. ``Honduras is just a theater which we rent out for other people to put on their shows,'' complains Efra'in Diaz, president of the opposition Christian Democratic Party. ``And we end up looking like fools.''

The glare of publicity that Washington focused on the incursion, the use of US Army helicopters to ferry Honduran troops to the scene of combat, and President Reagan's decision to rush $20 million in emergency military aid have pushed Honduras ``a fairly significant step down a road it does not want to take,'' one European diplomat says.

``They are closer to taking part in a regional conflict they don't want, and I don't think many people will be very happy about what happened last week,'' he adds.

Particularly troubling to the authorities was the way in which Washington's handling of the incident drew attention to the existence of ``contra'' camps inside Honduras. The contras are Nicaraguan rebels fighting to overthrow Nicaragua's government. Honduran government officials have long pleaded ignorance of contra installations, one of which was the target of the Sandinista attack.

Maintaining this line will be harder, officials acknowledge, since US helicopters took 600 Honduran troops -- and later journalists -- to within two-and-a-half miles of the contras' main camp.

Last week, a Honduran colonel was placed in the awkward position of having to brief reporters on the military situation as if there were no contras in the region and as if Honduran troops, not contras, had been battling the intruding Sandinistas. Even as he spoke, journalists were talking to wounded rebels in a contra hospital less than one mile away.

``What caught the Hondurans on this was that it was a specific attack on a contra position, and they did not want to deal with it,'' one diplomatic observer says.

``The United States is getting frustrated at maintaining this fake scenario'' that there are no rebels in Honduras, another diplomat suggests. ``They may just have got fed up and decide to ditch it, in an effort to make Honduras follow suit.''

Last week's episode, one senior Honduran official agrees privately, ``means we will have to teach ourselves to tell the truth'' about the contra presence. ``But to make it clear that we don't want it [that presence] to happen.''

The trouble is, he worries, ``it is not just a question of controlling the border. We would have to dislodge the contra camps -- which would mean major military action and a big conflict with the United States. That's what puts Honduras in a very serious situation.''

The US stance on aid to the contras remains deadlocked. Last week, after the House of Representatives rejected President Reagan's $100 million package of military and humanitarian aid in a vote on March 13, the Senate approved it. The House is scheduled to vote again on April 15. Should the House at that time approve an aid package, the Senate and House would need to work out a compromise. Increased contra activity, backed by US funds, could increase pressures on US-Honduran relations.

Equally serious as a dispute with the US, the official says, would be an open conflict with Nicaragua, which the government did its best to avoid by effectively ignoring the Sandinista incursion until Washington's statements forced officials here to go public.

``We do not want to set the brush on fire,'' the official adds. ``Our protest to Managua was very carefully worded, very calm.''

But Tegucigalpa's hopes of preventing a further deterioration in relations with Managua may suffer the same fate as its bid to turn a blind eye to the incursion, observers here say.

``On this occasion, Washington deliberately escalated the tension between Honduras and Nicaragua,'' the European diplomat says. ``And there are clearly some members of the US administration who would like to go on doing so.''

The use of US helicopters to transport Honduran troops to the scene of the incursion ``marks the first time that the Honduran and US armies have been in military action together,'' the diplomat says. Future Honduran-Nicaraguan relations, he predicts, could ``depend very much on what the Nicaraguans do now.''

The first indications are that Managua is ready to seize on the new level of US involvement. Speaking to reporters Friday, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra warned of the ``Vietnamization'' of the Central American conflict, saying ``US troops will run the same risk as the contras.''

That is no small risk, should US helicopters come close to the border in light of Mr. Ortega's references to ``frontier territory'' -- referring to both sides of the border. These areas, according to Ortega, would ``become a war zone because of the rules of the game imposed by the United States'' and its support for the contras.

This suggests that Nicaragua may be ready to claim more than the right established under international law to ``hot pursuit'' across a frontier, the diplomat says. ``If the logic of `frontier territory' is handed down to military commanders,'' he adds, more Sandinista raids can be expected.

Although Honduran officials are understood to be resentful at the way Washington handled the incident, analysts here do not expect it will have serious long-term repurcussions on Honduran relations with the United States.

But the domestic implications, the Honduran official fears, will be more serious. ``We look like a puppet of the United States,'' he pointed out, ``and the people are not happy with things being imposed on us from abroad like this.''

In the medium term, he adds, ``there may not be any impact. But in the longer term, the people's absolute disagreement with the [contra] situation could provoke serious social conflict here.''

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