Nicaragua's Indian rebels head home to bargain with Sandinistas

Indian rebel chiefs plan to return to Nicaragua to continue talks with the Sandinista government on ending five years of war, Miskito Indian leader Brooklyn Rivera said Wednesday. Two weeks of talks with the Sandinistas outside the country``seem to be going well,'' Mr. Rivera said in a telephone interview from the Costa Rican capital, San Jos'e. He said he was optimistic that he and fellow indigenous Indian leaders would soon be back in their homeland on Nicaragua's Caribbean coast.

But uncertainties persist over the terms of such a homecoming, and negotiations were expected to continue through the weekend.

Rivera heads a rebel Indian group, Yatama, that says it is fighting for the native rights of people living along Nicaragua's predominantly indigenous Caribbean coast. Yatama, a Miskito Indian acronym for Organization of the Nations of the Motherland, has been negotiating for the return of its leaders under the Aug. 7 Central American peace plan, Rivera said.

Mediating between Managua and the rebel Indian leaders have been United States Senators Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, and pastors of the Moravian church, a Protestant sect influential among Miskito Indians.

Rivera says he intends to go home to negotiate ``a number of issues,'' with Managua, starting with a cease-fire between his estimated 1,000 to 2,000 troops and the Sandinista Army.

He also wants to renegotiate a law recently passed by the Nicaraguan assembly, after 30 months of debate granting the region limited autonomy from central government rule. That law, Yatama leaders say, is too weak.

``I will be returning with no preconditions from either side,'' Rivera said. ``We will not be disarming, and we will not be accepting the amnesty'' the Sandinistas have offered guerrillas who lay down their weapons.

Although Managua has insisted until now that rebels may return home only if they accept the amnesty, there are signs the authorities may make an exception for the Miskito rebels, who have always denied they are counterrevolutionaries. ``Never have I seen the government so flexible,'' said one official involved in the recent mediation effort. ``They could well drop the amnesty demand, because they recognize that the Indians are very different from the [Nicaraguan Democratic Force] FDN,'' the main contra group.

But at the same time some Sandinista officials reportedly worry that allowing Rivera to return without accepting the amnesty would create a precedent that other contra leaders might seek to follow.

Rivera also said Managua had dropped its demand that he recognize the new autonomy law, but a government official and a mediator here disputed that claim. If the exiled Indian leaders want to change the law, said the mediator, they will have to win election to the planned regional assemblies that will govern the coast, and use parliamentary procedures.

``The government has said no to reopening the autonomy negotiations,'' the mediator added. ``They will have to work with what's available now, work within the system.''

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