Aim of Sandinista offensive unclear

The Sandinista Army has launched a major offensive in northern Nicaragua against the US-backed contra rebels. The offensive was reported late Tuesday evening. It comes a week before the next round of cease-fire talks, which are scheduled to begin Monday. For the first time, the Sandinista-contra talks are to be direct and held inside Nicaragua.

A Defense Ministry spokeswoman here confirmed late Tuesday that the offensive was under way ``near the frontier'' with Honduras.

But at press time Wednesday, the Defense Ministry refused to confirm or deny its troops entered Honduran territory. ``We are looking into the reports,'' an officer said. ``It's serious and that's why I can't say yes or no.''

[In Washington yesterday, the Reagan administration accused Nicaragua of invading Honduras with 1,500 troops on Wednesday to strike at contra bases. The administration said it was consulting closely with Honduras and considering all its options. Washington said the offensive is aimed at destroying contra supply depots, which contain substantial proportions of the contras' remaining supplies.]

Unconfirmed reports say the fighting was centered near Bocay and Bonanza. Both towns have been the scene of regular fighting for several years. Bonanza was the site last December of the largest contra attack in seven years when several hundred rebels overran a Sandinista outpost.

This week's offensive took many by surprise, coming just before the next round of talks. The two delegations leading the direct talks in Sapoa will include the highest-ranking officials involved in negotiations since they began last year.

The offensive is particularly surprising as the Sandinistas are considered by diplomatic observers here to be in a stronger position vis-a-vis the contras than at any time in recent years.

``The Sandinistas have nothing to loose at Sapoa. The contras have very little to gain'' following the US Congress's Feb. 4 rejection of further aid to the contras, a South American diplomat here said.

That the Sandinistas believe the war here is still on, despite Congress's vote, was evident in a speech last week by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra. In a March 8 speech commemorating International Women's Day, President Ortega warned the contras that, should the cease-fire talks fail, ``our troops already are released for combat in a great military offensive.''

But his remarks were understood to mean an offensive would be launched should the government decide the contras were not negotiating in good faith. One motive for the current offensive could be that Managua wants to increase pressure on the rebels before the talks begin. Press reports and contra spokespersons have said since Congress's vote the rebels are short of munitions and may have to abandon Nicaragua for their Honduran bases.

Although the Sandinista offensive may be the largest in several months, there has been no serious lull in the war since the February vote.

The press here regularly report small-scale rebel attacks in the northern, central, and eastern part of the country.

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