The recent clash between Nicaraguan soldiers and contra rebels along Honduras's southern border reflects the mounting tension in the region as the contras prepare to crank up the war. Over the weekend, two Sandinista battalions with up to 1,000 men crossed into Honduras and fought contra troops near the base camps of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the largest contra army, rebel and informed sources said.
The weekend fighting, which was proceeded by a week of minor clashes and shelling of Honduran territory, has stopped. Casualties were apparently heavy in the fighting between the opposing Nicaraguan forces, although both sides are prone to exaggerate casualties. A foreign military observer said Monday that 20 contras and 50 Sandinista soldiers were killed in six days of fighting last week.
The attack was the largest Sandinista incursion since March when 1,200 Sandinistas assaulted the FDN camps. A foreign analyst in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa said that the Sandinistas were not trying to overrun the contra camps as they were in March but wanted to impede rebel movement into and out of Nicarauga.
The attacks are an apparent by-product of the United States Congress's Oct. 17 final authorization of $100 million in aid for the contras. The clashes should not escalate into a full-scale confrontation between Honduras and Nicaragua unless Honduran troops become involved in the fighting, according to an informed source in Tegucigalpa.
Hundreds of Hondurans from the border area were forced from their homes as a result of last week's skirmishes. One civilian was killed and three wounded when the bus they were riding near the Nicaragua border was ambushed by Sandinista forces firing from inside Nicaragua.
The border incidents, say the rebel sources, should not hinder rebel operations as the rebels begin their military build-up. The rebels will be able to parachute supplies in, allowing them to bypass the dangerous section of road that runs to within several hundred feet of the border, say the rebel sources. The shelling does not reach the camps, beyond the range of Sandinista guns.
Amid the increasing border violence, US plans for the contras, authorized when President Reagan signed the legislation, are being finalized and set into motion, all of the sources interviewed said.
One of Washington's first goals is to establish an efficient logistical network to ferry supplies to Central America and begin training contra troops, reports indicate. For the first time since the US Congress severed connection with the rebels in October 1984, Central Intelligence Agency officers will be able to help contra commanders develop strategy and plan operations from Washington and more than likely from Honduras, informed and rebel sources said.
Once the aid begins to flow freely, the contras and the US are planning to outfit rebel troops waiting in Honduras for supplies and send them into Nicaragua. This process should be complete by January when 80 percent of the FDN's 18,000 troops should be fighting in Nicaragua, Ar'istides Sanchez, the organization's logistics chief, said in an interview.
For several months, the US has been planning to use Swan Island as a staging point for the contra supply operation, sources said. The informed source denied published reports that El Tigre Island would be used for contra operations. Honduras also denied last week that either isalnd would be used for the contras.
From Swan Island, contra supplies will be flown into Nicaragua by contra pilots and private contractors. This will reduce the rebels dependence on their air base at Aguacate in central Honduras, sources said. Getting the supply operation off the mainland is a priority to address Honduran concerns about being publicly connected to the US contra policy, said the informed source.
The private pilots will be needed because it is illegal for US government personnel to go within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border, although use of the contractors will be reduced, Mr. Sanchez said.
Both FDN and other sources familiar with US plans for the contras say they are anxious to begin training contra leaders outside Central America. And while no location for that training has been made public yet, Sanchez said the first group of 70 leaders has been picked and will leave Honduras ``in the coming days'' for a six-week course. He did not indicate where the training would take place nor how they would get there.
With the US aid, the FDN hopes to get enough weapons and supplies to grow to a 30,000-man army by next summer, Sanchez said. High on the rebels' priority list is the acquisition of surface-to-air missiles to counter the Soviet-made MI-24 attack helicopters effectively used by the Sandinistas. They had hoped to receive the sophisticated US-made stinger missile but will probably get the older Soviet-made SAM 7 [on the world market], he said.
The rebels plan to significantly raise the level of firepower of contra units by supplying more heavy machine guns and mortars to the troops. They are asking the US for four Hughes 500 helicopters to evacuate wounded rebels from Nicaragua and a number of transport planes for their supply operation, Sanchez added.
Once in the field, contra troops will concentrate on attacking targets whose destruction will make it hard for the Sandinistas to move their troops: bridges, trucks, gasoline supplies, power lines, and generating stations, Sanchez said. The contras also plan to infiltrate small groups of fighters into Nicaragua's pacific coastal cities to demonstrate that they pose a serious threat.
The rebels insist that their goal is not to overthrow the Sandinistas, but to change Nicaragua into a democratic society.
``We are going to create a situation of negotiation or collapse. [The Sandinistas] will be free to choose. They are the ones who will say negotiations or war,'' Enrique Bermudez, the FDN's top military commander, said.