Contras' fear of major assault by Sandinista troops subsides. Nicaraguan presence in Honduras seen having mainly political aims

More than a month after about 1,000 Nicaraguan troops invaded Honduras, the fear that the move presaged a major attack against Nicaraguan rebel bases has passed, informed sources here say. Instead the maneuver is seen here as having mainly political objectives to:

Draw attention to the contra rebels' presence in Honduras rather than a prelude to an assault on rebel bases.

Block rebel infiltration routes into Nicaragua.

Individual units of the estimated 11,000 contras, according to the informed sources, will begin to move across the border once they receive military supplies provided by part of the $100 million aid package. The United States Congress approved the aid in October.

There is little concern here that the Sandinistas will use the disarray in Washington caused by revelations that funds from arms deals with Iran were diverted to the contras to launch a major attack. One of the informed sources said the Sandinistas know better ``than to push the US too far.''

While small and infrequent Sandinista incursions into southern Honduras have been common in the past, stationed troops is a new phenomenon.

When the Sandinistas first moved into Honduras in late October, the contras tried unsuccessfully for five days to dislodge them, leaving dozens dead on both sides.

Contra and Sandinista troops are now eye-to-eye about four miles inside Honduras, according to Commandante Tono, the rebel leader in charge of the defense of the Honduran camps, and the informed sources. But there has been only scattered fighting. Neither side has made a major move against the other, the sources said.

The Honduran government is embarrassed by the contra and Sandinista presence in the country. Honduras has refused to recognize that the Sandinista troops appear to be stationed not far from the base camps of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the largest contra army.

Tuesday, the Honduran National Security Council and US Ambassador Everett Briggs met to discuss the border situation. After the meeting, Foreign Minister Carlos L'opez Contreras was quoted in the local press as saying that the Sandinistas are on the Nicaraguan side of the border but they make small incursions into Honduras.

Besides troops in Honduras, the Sandinistas have about 3,000 men just across the border in Nicaragua, Mr. Tono and the informed sources said.

While acknowledging that a Sandinista attack is possible, Tono said the Sandinistas hope to turn Honduran public opinion against the contras with the idea that eventually public pressure would result in the Honduran government being less hospitable to the contras.

The Honduran press almost daily publicizes stories that Sandinista troops are in the southern border region. Both Honduran civilians and Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the area where the contras operate say the Sandinistas have positions in Honduras and there are frequent Sandinista-contra clashes.

But a civilian spokesman for the Honduran Armed Forces, Juan Sierra Fonseca, said that the Sandinistas are not in Honduras, that the Honduran Army ``would never allow'' the Sandinistas to move into Honduran territory. He also said the civilians are fleeing from the fighting on the Nicaraguan side of the border, and the shelling they report are shots that have fallen in Honduras.

If the Honduran government were to acknowledge a Sandinista presence in the country, the government could be forced to move against the Sandinistas, something the outgunned Honduran Army is loath to do.

It would be hard for the estimated 4,000 Sandinistas in the border area to attack 11,000 contras in their camps. And it is unlikely that the contras will try to dislodge the Sandinistas because it would cost them a lot in lives and equipment.

Although the Sandinistas are meant to block contra routes into Nicaragua, the rebels have been able, in the past, to move troops through Sandinista lines in the jungle terrain. But the Sandinista presence could make it difficult for the contras to move out, since it would leave their bases unprotected.

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