The Nicaraguan rebels' main military group has appeared for the first time on Nicaragua's remote Atlantic Coast - hijacking and burning civilian vehicles and kidnapping the men on board. The move appears to signal a new thrust by the contras in the wake of the failure of indigenous Indian rebel groups to pose a serious threat to Sandinista authorities, local officials and independent analysts say.
A group from the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) blew up four vehicles 40 miles northwest of this regional capital on Saturday, according to government officials here and passengers who escaped after the ambush. The guerrillas then marched off into the forest, taking with them around 60 men and boys, some as young as 12.
While anti-Sandinista Miskito Indian rebels have been fighting up and down the coast for the past five years, the FDN has never before operated so far east, local residents say.
Sandinista leaders worry that the United States-backed guerrillas intend to disrupt government efforts to give the Indians a measure of autonomy.
Some 3,000 delegates from all communities on Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast are scheduled to travel to Puerto Cabezas in mid-May for an assembly that is expected to put the final touches on an autonomy statute. The danger of rebel ambushes could dissuade people from coming, local officials fear.
Saturday's ambush had a more immediate impact on Felipe Z'uniga, owner of the only bus linking Puerto Cabezas with communities on the R'io Coco. (Please see accompanying story, page 10.)
According to the top Sandinista official here, Myrna Cunningham, governor of Zelaya Province, this was the first major rebel action on the Atlantic Coast for over six months.
``The new FDN presence means that Kisan [a Miskito Indian rebel group] has fallen to pieces,'' Dr. Cunningham says. ``The FDN no longer trusts its indigenous allies to operate here.''
Kisan has been rent by divisions almost since its creation in 1985. About 500 of Kisan's men - half its troop strength - have accepted a Nicaraguan government amnesty and are now engaged in talks with the Sandinistas over the nature of Miskito autonomy.
Though government officials believe that FDN forces have begun to move east in the face of heavy Sandinista Army pressure in their traditional operational zones, other analysts see the development as a deliberate plan.
``Their target is autonomy,'' says Ren'e Henr'iquez, local head of the Atlantic Coast Research and Documentation Centre, a semi-autonomous government-linked agency.
``I think the FDN will try to black out the assembly,'' Mr. Henr'iquez added, referring to the May meeting.
Others believe that the contras may be reviving an old plan to try to seize and occupy this port town of some 25,000 inhabitants, which was once used as a logistics base for the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Reynaldo Reyes, a Kisan guerrilla leader who holds talks with government representatives, says he believes a group of 120 of his former Kisan comrades-in-arms are moving in from the north. Meanwhile, a second force belonging to another indigenous rebel organization, Misurasata, which has been largely dormant for the past two years, is stationed to the southeast.
``These are preliminary exploration groups, reconnoitering the lay of the land,'' Mr. Reyes suggests. ``But maybe the FDN will send in more men when the rainy season starts in June, and the Sandinistas can't use their helicopters so much.''
``This is an old idea,'' comments Hazel Lau, the Sandinista deputy in the National Assembly for northern Zelaya Province. ``However, you can never discount the possibility that they might try it.''
Even if the contras' goals are not so ambitious, the FDN presence in the area bodes ill for the Miskitos' prospects of a more normal life in the near future. For three days after Saturday's attack, no traffic was allowed out of Puerto Cabezas. Such ambushes clearly cause easy disruptions.
``The people were hurt by what happened on Saturday,'' echoes Bishop Hedley Wilson, the 91-year old head of the Moravian church, to which most Miskitos belong.
``This hit-and-run [attack] hasn't advanced [the rebels'] cause any, either militarily or politically,'' Bishop Wilson added.
For Cunningham, a Miskito herself, the FDN's arrival may have one silver lining. Given the Miskitos' centuries-old mistrust of ``Spaniards'' from the Pacific side of the country, ``it is much easier for Miskito people to identify the FDN as the enemy.''
In the short term, however, Cunningham fears that if the FDN moves into her region in greater force, they could deal ``a serious blow'' to the peace process, which is one of the key elements of the autonomy plan.
``The Army has to be harder against the FDN,'' Hazel Lau says.``Dealing with indigenous rebels, there are political considerations, but with these FDN, we have to throw all our forces against them.''