Shortly before dawn a week ago, a group of Nicaraguan rebels attacked the town of San Jos'e de Bocay in northern Nicaragua. Depending on who one listens to, it was either the contras' greatest victory, as 500 rebels destroyed government facilities and damaged the airfield there, or a typical contra attack where civilians suffered the brunt of the violence.
At the pinnacle of their power nine months after beginning their latest United States-sponsored military buildup, the Nicaraguan rebels have come a long way on the battlefield, say various foreign observers here. But the rebels are still unable to point to any clear cut major military successes. And counterinsurgency tactics of the Sandinista government have prevented the contras from building a base of support inside Nicaragua, rebel and informed sources say.
``We have nearly won back the territory we lost in '85 and '86'' after the cutoff of US aid, said Enrique Berm'udez, the military leader of the Nicaraguan Resistance, the new name given to the umbrella group formed in May to unify the various factions fighting the Sandinistas.
As they come to the end of the $100 million allocated last October by the US Congress, the contra movement is stained by the Iran-contra affair. Yet contra leaders are confident they will win more aid.
One of the biggest reasons is Lt. Col. Oliver North, who advocated the rebel cause during Congressional testimony. ``For our cause, he is a hero,'' Mr. Berm'udez said. North's testimony has boosted the morale of contra fighters in the jungles who followed his testimony by radio.
The rebels are also sure to point to the assault on San Jos'e de Bocay, a town of 3,000, as they try to convince Congress they deserve more aid.
In their attack, the contras claim to have overrun the garrison, farm cooperative, and airfield at San Jos'e, one of the most important Sandinista military facilities in northern Nicaragua. The rebels claim to have pocked the airstrip with holes and blown up all government buildings there. The contras did not give casualty figures.
Originally, the Sandinistas said they lost 25 soldiers. These numbers could not be confirmed. But since Friday they have continually reduced the casualty figures.
Reports from San Jos'e de Bocay said the contras barely made it to the town's edge, and did not capture the airfield or destroy any government buildings. A New York Times's story said the rebels killed nine soldiers, three children, and a pregnant woman, while 21 rebels died.
Whatever the truth, the rebels would still like to point to it as a victory. But the rebels and those familiar with their operations have always said that attacks of this nature were not a priority. These sources said the emphasis will remain on using small groups of fighters, up to 100. By keeping the troops dispersed in small units there is less opportunity for major victories. But at the same time there are no large troop concentrations for the Sandinistas to attack and claim a major victory, Berm'udez said.
While rebel claims about San Jos'e are questionable, there is no doubt they have made their presence known inside Nicaragua. An impartial Western diplomat here said the contras were operating in parts of Nicaragua where they have not been seen in years.
A second foreign official said the Sandinistas had been forced to call up reserves and conscript more Nicaraguans to fight. As a result, they are sending younger and less-trained soldiers into battle.
Since the resumption of US aid, the rebels have shot down at least 10 Soviet-made combat helicopters, about 20 percent of Nicaragua's air fleet, which has been the most effective weapon against the rebels, the two diplomats said in separate interviews.
Casualties are undisputedly high, although the accuracy of each sides' claims are doubtful. Both the Sandinistas and contras claim to have killed about 3,000 of their enemy during the first six months of '87. The Western diplomat said that, as a rule of thumb, military planners figure five wounded for each combat death. For the contras that would mean their casualties so far this year exceeded the size of their army - estimated at about 15,000, with 13,000 fighting in Nicaragua.
Contra operations inside Nicaragua have been hindered by the Sandinistas forcibly removing civilians from some war zones, contra and informed sources say. ``Without the civilian population we have no base of support,'' Berm'udez said.
Partly as a result of the relocations, rebel recruitment is barely keeping up with casualties because the contras draw new soldiers from the civilian population, the rebel source said. And a record number of deserters is showing up in UN refugee camps in Honduras, both Honduran and UN refugee officials say.
The relocation effort has also made it difficult for contra troops to find food inside Nicaragua. Contra doctrine calls for troops to buy food from civilians. But the dearth of civilians is forcing contra columns to spend more and more time locatingfood. Valuable space on contra planes is now taken up by food. US and contra planners hoped to fly only military equipment into Nicaragua, according to one informed source in Tegucigalpa.
The contras air-drop network, run out of Aguacate and the Swan Islands, drops supplies on an average of once a week, the informed and contra sources said.