Managua cease-fire offer tests contra leadership. In both Nicaragua and El Salvador, further initiatives are being taken to comply with the regional peace plan. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista government has eased censorship for opposition news media, and announced a partial cease-fire. In El Salvador, the government and rebels have agreed to meet for the first time since 1984. But government critics in both countries are skeptical of the intentions behind these measures.

Nicaragua's announcement of a partial cease-fire in its battle with the contra rebels is its third peace initiative in three days, and may signal a Sandinista strategy to divide the rebel leadership and their supporters, diplomats and other political observers say. In announcing the cease-fire Tuesday, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra said the four-man Nicaraguan peace commission headed by Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo would take the lead in communicating with rebels in the field.

Tuesday's announcement followed criticisms from the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference that the government was not doing enough to achieve a cease-fire by the deadline of Nov. 7, as laid down in the Central American peace plan signed last month.

The bishops view positively the call for national dialogue with the domestic opposition parties scheduled to take place on Oct. 5. But they say that the contras should also participate in the dialogue.

Cardinal Obando's role in the most recent initiative is seen as significant by political observers, as he has long been a powerful critic of the Sandinista government.

Obando has apparently accepted the role of verifying the gradual withdrawal of Sandinista battalions from the battlefield, and of bringing the cease-fire message to the contra soldiers in the mountains and encouraging them to avail themselves of amnesty.

Observers say the government may hope to take advantage of the Cardinal's personal prestige as well as the participation of Catholic clergymen on local peace committees.

Political observers say the Sandinistas' strategy seems to be aimed at splitting contra troops in the field from their leadership based in Miami and Costa Rica.

Contra leaders have already expressed vehement opposition to any attempt by the Sandinistas to bypass them and negotiate with field commanders. According to these observers, should the unilateral cease-fire take effect, the contras will have the option of being seen as the aggressors or stopping their campaign.

With this week's initiatives, in compliance with the Aug. 7 regional peace accord, the Sandinistas appear to have regained the political offensive.

On Tuesday, Ortega announced that the banned Roman Catholic Church radio station, Radio Catolica, would reopen. Two days earlier, he reached an agreement with the publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa that allowed it to reopen without censorship.

A week ago, Ortega released 16 political prisoners. Last weekend, the contras tried to regain some political ground lost when the five regional Presidents signed the August peace agreement. The contras turned over 80 Sandinista prisoners to the Costa Rican government. The release of so many prisoners seem to demonstrate the contras' good faith.

The rebels, however, have not developed a coherent negotiating position, political observers say. The rebels' military commander, Col. Enrique Berm'udez has talked in the last few weeks about intensifying military action.

In an interview in the capital of Costa Rica last weekend, this view was echoed by a civilian member of the contra directorate, Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro. Mr. Chamorro was extremely pessimistic about the prospects of a cease-fire by the Nov. 7 deadline.

In contrast, Alfonso Robelo, another leader of the contras' political directorate, was hopeful and conciliatory.

Mr. Robelo characterized a statement by Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra that the defense minister would be prepared to negotiate with contra field commanders as a softening of the Sandinista position.

The contras have appointed a negotiating team consisting of three civilians and two military commanders, one of whom is an ex-member of the National Guard under former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

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