Pushing contra war into Nicaragua tests US envoy to Honduras. Keeping Honduran military and public support key to his success

As Washington's new ambassador here, Everett E. Briggs faces what is probably his biggest career test - arriving in Honduras as the anti-Sandinista contra rebels prepare to move out of their Honduran base camps and onto the battlefields of Nicaragua. It is vital to the Reagan administration's policy that the 30-year foreign service veteran push forward the United States-financed war in Nicaragua while keeping the Hondurans content. Without Honduras's support the contra war would be impossible.

The main contra group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), is based in southern Honduras, and most of its supplies are brought in with the help of the Honduran military.

Ambassador Briggs has two obstacles to maintaining Honduran support for the contras: the Honduran military and the Honduran public.

The military has been known to ration its support for the contras in proportion to the amount of aid coming from Washington. Last year, some of the shipments of the $27 million in US humanitarian aid to the contras were blocked by the Honduran military. Some say that the military wanted more aid from the US.

Many Hondurans are increasingly chafing at the problems caused by the contras' presence. Thousands of Nicaraguan refugees have come into Honduras and live along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border, and thousands of Hondurans have been forced from their homes along the border. Many Hondurans also worry about being drawn into a war with Nicaragua.

In addition to allowing the contras to use US military facilities in Honduras, which the US says are not permanent, the US military has established an extensive military presence in Honduras that could be used for direct military action in the region. In exchange for their help, the Hondurans have received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of economic and military aid from the US.

Brigg's Nov. 3 arrival here coincided almost to the day with the delivery of the first full shipment of military supplies to the FDN. The US ambassador has one of the most powerful positions in Honduras. He oversees the distribution of US aid. Traditionally, the power of this position goes back to the days when he acted as an agent for the US fruit companies, which controlled Honduras.

It is the Honduran military, which will decide whether to continue supporting the contras, political and military analysts say. Although most of the military leaders would like to see the Sandinistas overthrown, a number of officers say the US should give Honduras more for what it is receiving, according to V'ictor Meza, an independent political analyst who heads the Honduran Documentation Center here and others interviewed.

It was recently announced that the US will supply Honduras with a number of F-5 fighter aircrafts. The planes would assure continued superiority for the Honduran Air Force, the region's most powerful. But the deal was also the latest US payment for continued Honduran cooperation in the contra effort, Mr. Meza says.

Honduran officers are involved in a struggle to succeed the head of the armed forces whose term expires in January. In September, the feud almost turned violent when one officer refused to be removed from his command by his chief rival after losing a power play. He barricaded himself onto his base and prepared for battle. After negotiations, he surrendered without bloodshed.

If the armed forces were to become divided, they would be unable to support the US in the event of a military crisis in the region, Meza said.

Honduras has publicly denied that the contras operate with its support and says the rebels use Honduran territory only because the border with Nicaragua is too big to allow the Army to keep them out. But fighting between contra and Sandinista troops inside Honduras late last month made that fiction even harder to believe.

A motion by Honduran Congressman Nicholas Cruz Torres to expel the contras within 10 days was rejected by the head of his mainstream National Party. Yet he holds that Hondurans are getting fed up with the suffering they experience because of the contra presence. Pointing to statistics showing how farmers from the border area have lost millions of dollars because of the war, he said, ``If the contras are not in Nicaragua in January [when the Honduran Congress reconvenes] there will be more support for this type of motion.''

Informed sources say Honduran discontent with the contras does not translate into support for Nicaragua.

``We want a democratic government in Nicaragua ... but we want them to fight in Nicaragua without compromising our country,'' said Mr. Cruz Torres.

Meza and other analysts do not foresee a change in public attitudes, which might threaten the contra program. But if Honduras were to become involved in open warfare with Nicaragua - an increasing possibility as contras and Sandinistas constantly clash in Honduras - the public would rise up, Meza said. The government and the armed forces would be unable to ignore the clamor and would have to modify their contra policy, he added.

An informed source familiar with US contra plans said recently that Honduran concerns are being addressed. There are US plans to move the bulk of contra operations into Nicaragua within several months of the completion of a US-assisted rebel military build-up that has just begun.

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