THE influx of about 10,000 Nicaraguan Miskito Indians into Honduras this spring has revived the debate over how Nicaragua treats its indigenous population. The Reagan administration points to the exodus as further proof of the need for an additional $100 million in aid to Nicaragua's ``contra'' rebels. But relief officials and human rights observers here argue that many Miskitos came to Honduras as part of a rebel-designed plan to tarnish the image of Nicar-agua's Sandinista leaders.
The March 24-25 Sandinista attack on positions of Kisan, the Miskito contra army, preceded the exodus to Honduras. In the following three weeks, Miskitos flooded into Honduras.
In its reading of the situation, the US administration did not mince words. Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said the Indians' flight proved the Sandinistas' ``viciousness.''
But in a report last month, the human rights group Americas Watch indicated that the reasons for the exodus were more complicated. While acknowledging that the fighting drove many Indians into Honduras, the report charged that others came because Kisan ``had spread fear as part of a deliberate plan to evacuate the Miskitos from Nicaragua to Honduras.''
Mr. Abrams denounced the Americas Watch report as ``disgraceful, shameful,'' and accused the group of ``parroting the Sandinista line.'' But interviews with refugees and relief officials, coupled with Kisan's own behavior during the crisis, tend to substantiate the Americas Watch version.
The Sandinista Army moved against Kisan in an attempt to shut off key rebel supply routes from Honduras, says a well-informed source with access to rebel intelligence. About 1,000 government troops raided the towns of Bilwaskarma, Kum, and Wasla, said the source, driving out a small Kisan contingent after several hours of fighting. One civilian was reportedly killed by a mortar in Wasla. Officials of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) registered 7,200 new refugees by mid-April and estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 more were camped in Honduran territory outside UNHCR control. This influx, the largest since 1982, pushed the number of Miskitos in Honduran UN camps to more than 20,000. There are no Indians left on the Nicaraguan side of the Rio Coco, except for 3,000 to 4,000 in the Sandinista-controlled town of Waspam.
Nicaragua claimed that all of the Miskitos who went to Honduras had been ``kidnapped'' by Kisan. But observers said relatively few Indians were brought across the river against their will. Many of the refugees are relatives of Kisan guerrillas, and they regard the rebel army as their leader and protector.
Indian mistrust of the Sandinistas runs deep. The Miskitos ``have endured great abuses at the hands of the Sandinistas,'' said the Americas Watch report, ``and they have every reason to fear and hate'' the central government. In 1982, the Sandinistas relocated the Indians away from the Rio Coco to protect them from contra attacks. Many Miskitos resisted, and government troops killed some Indians and burned many villages to force the populace to move. The Miskitos were taken to a collection of resettlement camps known as Tasba Pri until the government allowed them to return last year.
Despite the bitterness caused by the 1982 relocation, relief officials were surprised that thousands of Indians who were nowhere near the fighting emigrated en masse to Honduras.
As long ago as last December, refugees arriving in Honduras told relief officials that ``everyone'' on the Rio Coco was going to leave Nicaragua. Various Indians said the border area would be emptied before the rainy season, which traditionally begins in late April.
Before the fighting broke out on March 24-25, the Council of Elders -- Kisan's administrative arm in Honduras -- had formed a nine-member reception committee to handle a large refugee influx, a well-informed relief official said. The Sandinista attack apparently forced Kisan to carry out the plan before it was completely prepared to do so.
To scare the Indians into leaving Nicaragua, Kisan spread rumors of an impending Sandinista advance, refugees said. Some Miskitos who had wanted to stay on the Rio Coco told relief officials that the rebels forced them to leave.
Once inside Honduras, the refugees were met by Kisan officials, who kept them at rebel-controlled farms. Refugees said the guerrillas held recruiting sessions with the new arrivals before sending them on to UNHCR reception centers.
The rebels worked with the United States in coordinating the flow of refugees to the reception centers. The US Embassy in Tegucigalpa told the rebels that it would bring the foreign press to the reception center at Srumlaya, a US official said. Before allowing the Indians to go to Srumlaya, Kisan coached them on how to answer questions, say Miskitos who attended the preparatory sessions.
Rebel leader Roger Hermann denied that Kisan had a plan to bring the Miskitos out of Nicaragua. But relief officials and other observers suggested that Kisan did have compelling reasons to empty the Rio Coco area:
A dramatic exodus of refugees fleeing the Sandinistas might influence the US congressional debate over contra aid.
The Indians would be easier to control in Honduras and provide a pool of new rebel recruits.
Kisan would not have to worry about the Miskitos being influenced by competing Indian rebel groups, some of whom are negotiating with the Sandinistas.
Some of the Indians have already gone home. Relief officials say a few hundred more may have returned on their own. But observers say the vast majority will remain in Honduras for the foreseeable future.