US war games leave Honduras unmoved - but not Nicaragua. US says exercise aims to better Honduran defense; Sandinistas worry it portends US invasion

More than 3,000 US soldiers are to due to storm a Honduran beachhead today in war games that Washington says merely boost this country's defense readiness but that the Sandinistas see as further preparation for a United States invasion of Nicaragua. The amphibious and airborne assaults on Honduras's north coast is the showpiece of a month-long exercise code named ``Solid Shield '87,'' involving 50,000 US troops. The maneuver has attracted wide international press attention, but it is old hat for the Hondurans.

``This is perfectly routine,'' says Foreign Ministry spokesman Eujenio Castro. ``We are all used to this, and everything is perfectly normal.'' The US military has been running joint exercises with its Honduran counterparts almost continuously since early 1983. These maneuvers have brought well over 100,000 US troops through Honduras over the past four years, US Embassy officials here say.

Though US military units are officially in Honduras temporarily, with some staying as briefly as a few days, critics see the rapid-fire development of one exercise into another as a way around a US congressional ban on a permanent US military presence here.

The US facilities at Palmerola air base, for example, have been built as temporary structures. ``But every time you drive by there, it has grown,'' says Efrain D'iaz, a member of the Honduran Congress who is opposed to the scale of US operations here.

Palmerola, which coordinates all the maneuvers, has begun to play the role of a US command-and-control center for many US military activities in Central America, military observers here say. US advisers reportedly fly in and out of El Salvador from the base, and US helicopters stationed there recently helped the Guatemalan Army ferry its troops from one post to another.

But Palmerola is not the only military base to have grown as a result of exercises here. US military engineers have built or extended nine other airstrips around Honduras, which officials here say could be used as rear-guard facilities in the event of a US-Nicaraguan war.

``The Army's role is to be ready to fight anywhere in the world,'' explains US Maj. Rod Adair, who is stationed here. The exercises, he adds, ``are a great opportunity for us to come to another part of the world where we might be called upon to fight.''

US and Honduran officials insist that the war games are designed to improve Honduras's defenses, and to warn the Sandinistas ``to stay at home,'' as Gen. John Galvin, the outgoing chief of the Southern Command, put it at a recent ceremony here.

``The hypothesis of all these maneuvers has been defensive,'' Mr. Castro says. ``And the primary beneficiary has been the Honduran Army.'' Privately, however, not all Castro's colleagues share this view. Says another Honduran official here, ``the maneuvers are designed by the Americans for an American intervention.''

That impression has fueled concern in Nicaragua, where the government says the continuing exercises are ``tightening the noose'' around the country.

Whatever the political message, there is no doubt that the war games have improved the performance of both the Honduran and US armies in the rugged Central American terrain. ``The Honduran Army is much more professional, much more self-confident,'' says one European diplomat here. ``It hasn't increased dramatically in size, but its quality has improved.''

Some of that improvement has come with the sophisticated weaponry that Honduras has bought with the $382 million in US military aid received since 1981. But at the same time, says Major Adair, the Honduran Army ``communicates better, coordinates with higher authorities better, and thinks in terms of theater operations,'' rather than as individual batallions.

[Despite Congressional opposition, the US administration was scheduled at press time to tell Congress it will sell Honduras 12 advanced fighter jets. Honduras wants the F-5E jets to replace its aging Super Myst`ere jets. Members of Congress worry the sale will escalate the arms race in Central America and Nicaragua will use the F-5E sale to ask for Soviet MIGs.]

The maneuvers, which have generally been held in fairly remote parts of the country, seem to have left the vast majority of Hondurans unmoved. But some diplomats and officials detect a sense of unease even within the government over the image that Honduras's close ties with the US have projected abroad.

``The Hondurans know that a lot of European governments are critical of what the US is doing here, and they are worried that it will affect those governments' policies toward Honduras,'' the diplomat says.

With few officials here persuaded that US support for the contras will resolve the Central American crisis, ``there is disillusionment with the US option; people wonder where it is leading,'' the diplomat adds.

Such concerns have prompted some prominent politicians here to suggest that Honduras should diversify its diplomatic and commercial links. A Soviet trade mission is due to visit soon, officials say. But these developments scarcely alter the fact of Honduras's critical dependence on US military and economic aid, foreign diplomats here say.

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