Army chief's election may erode Honduran support for contras. In vote, officers less supportive of US policy gained concessions

The election of a Honduran Armed Forces chief to a full term in office could mark the beginning of a shift in Honduran attitudes toward the United States' Central America policy. This shift could ultimately reduce Honduras's role in supporting the US policy of backing the Nicaraguan contra rebels, Western diplomats say. The Honduran Congress's near-unanimous vote to give Gen. Humberto Regalado Hern'andez a three-year term as head of the Honduran military is not expected to presage any immediate changes in Honduran policy and came as no surprise. General Regalado was first named to the position last February to fill the unexpired term of his predecessor, who was ousted in a barracks coup.

But to win, Regalado had to agree to share power with a group of officers who, some foreign diplomats say, are less supportive of US policy than the outgoing military leadership, although most officers are anxious to see the Sandinista government in Managua overthrown.

As part of his deal, it is expected that a routine reorganization of the Honduran military in early January will give these officers key posts in the military command structure giving them a dominant voice in the formation of Honduran military policy, an informed source says.

Even after five years of civilian rule, the military is still the most powerful organization in Honduras.

The largest contra group is based in Honduras and is dependent on the support of the Honduran military. The Army does everything from preventing snooping journalists from reaching the contra camps to providing security for rebel arms shipments through Honduras.

If the US were to lose Honduran support, the US's contra effort would be doomed.

According to a Western diplomat here, Regalado was the US's first choice for the high-profile position after the previously-favored candidate was forced out of the military hierarchy last summer.

The US influenced Honduran military thinking by frequently raising Regalado's name as a qualified candidate for a full term, the diplomat said. The Hondurans, knowing that the US holds the purse strings to millions of dollars worth of military and economic aid that Honduras cannot afford to reject, took the hint, the diplomat added. Thus Regalado's Dec. 29 election by the Honduran Congress was the rubber stamp of a decision made some time ago by Honduras's top officers.

To stay in office, Regalado had to agree to share power with a group of officers from the so-called Sixth Promotion, a group of unified younger soldiers, freezing out the older and more diverse Fifth Promotion. The promotion numbers refer to the officers' graduating class from the Honduran military academy.

Regalado won the position on condition that he act as a figurehead for the Sixth Promotion and not try to actively rule the military, which is what caused the two previous officers in the position to lose their jobs, foreign diplomats and local political analysts said.

The officers from the Sixth Promotion ``are less inclined to follow unquestioningly US policy in Central America,'' the Western diplomat said.

A second Western diplomat said the Sixth's reluctance to blindly accept the US lead stems from the officers having held field commands where they saw how US contra policy hurts Honduras. Almost since the contras began operation in southern Honduras, the area has been the scene of clashes between Sandinista and contra troops. The fighting has forced thousands of civilians to flee and many have been killed and wounded by Sandinista artillery bombardments and land mines planted in Honduran territory.

The second diplomat said any opposition from the Sixth to the contras would not be manifested in demands that the contras be expelled at once from Honduras. Rather, the complaints about Honduras's ever-more public role would help prompt the US to reevaluate the efficacy of the contra program.

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