Ex-contra commanders plan to breathe life into southern front. Leaders of southern rebels hope to broaden anti-Sandinista war

A group of former Nicaraguan contra field commanders say they plan to return to the battlefield to breathe new life into a southern front in the war against Managua. The commanders had given up the fight against Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas, complaining of incompetence and corruption among the leaders of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the main contra force.

The rebel chiefs, now arranging to fight under the colors of the Southern Opposition Bloc (BOS), hope their efforts will increase pressure on the Sandinista Army, whose forces are now mainly concentrated in northern Nicaragua, near the Honduran border.

At the same time, BOS, which describes itself as a Social Democratic grouping, moved closer this week to a joint plan of government with the Honduran-based umbrella contra group, the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). This plan will be put into effect only after they defeat the Sandinistas, they say.

The joint agreement, rebel leaders say, will serve two purposes: It will signal the efforts to cooperate that the Congress demanded when it recently approved the $100 million in contra aid, and it will answer the criticism that the contras have not spelled out a political alternative.

Leaders of the Costa Rican-based BOS say the two developments have heightened their stature in the constellation of Nicaraguan rebel groups, and offer new hope of broadening the war.

But they acknowledge that the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) - UNO's largest military force, which has long been associated with supporters of former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle - remains by far the most dominant group within the contras.

``The southern front is of determinant importance, both militarily and politically,'' says UNO leader Arturo Cruz.

``BOS's influence is relative, though, because of its lack of troops.''

Under former military commander Ed'en Pastora G'omez, BOS was believed to have had about 2,000 men earlier this year. But the majority of them defected to UNO in May. Today, says BOS leader Alfredo C'esar, his troops number ``a few hundred.''

Mr. Pastora, who had been deprived of his positions inside Nicaragua during a 1985 Sandinista offensive that effectively destroyed the southern front, withdrew from the struggle after the field commanders' defections.

With $5 million of recently approved US contra aid earmarked for BOS, Mr. C'esar says the organization is counting on former FDN leaders to ``reactivate'' his forces.

Within two months, he adds, the rebels will arrive in Costa Rica to recruit troops, act as military advisers, and ``speed up the southern front.''

The men will be drawn from the Nicaraguan Coalition in Opposition to the Regime, a Miami-based group of former FDN men who are opposed to FDN leader Col. Enrique Bermudez, says coalition leader Hugo Villagra.

Many of the Miami coalition's members are former officials in Somoza's National Guard, and were among the first to take up arms against the Sandinistas in 1980 as the ``15th September Legion.''

But Mr. Villagra insists that they have since decided that ``we cannot return to the pre-Sandinista scheme of things. A solution has to be in accordance with the current situation'' in Nicaragua.

``UNO is perceived as representing the Nicaraguan oligarchy,'' Villagra says, explaining the shift of alliegance to BOS among the 50 or so former rebel commanders and men that the Miami coalition claims.

BOS, on the other hand, flaunting Social Democratic credentials such as its observer status with the Socialist International, resists the ``contra'' label, preferring to describe itself as a ``dissident'' group defending a revolution it says has been betrayed by the Sandinistas.

More independent of the US than UNO, and with closer ties to Western European political parties, BOS ``is important because of its international links'' and its cleaner image, says Mr. Cruz.

C'esar, who has been holding monthly meetings with UNO leaders since the two groups signed a June cooperation accord, rejects suggestions that his growing ties with UNO might sully that image.

``So long as the talks allow advances towards positions that are acceptable to us, we will continue them,'' C'esar says.

Current negotiations, UNO and BOS leaders say, center on the nature of a transitional government in a post-Sandinista Nicaragua. A joint statement is expected within a month, after final details have been ironed out.

Sources close to the talks say the draft declaration envisions a ruling ``junta'' made up of ``all the principal political currents'' in Nicaragua, which would appear not to exclude the Sandinistas. The document is also understood to pledge respect for Sandinista social and economic reforms such as the nationalization of the banks and agrarian reform.

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