Sandinista `gamble' could net diplomatic returns

By risking both a United States retaliation and a scuttling of cease-fire talks with contra rebels, Nicaragua's recent offensive is seen here as a bold gamble. But the gamble appears to be paying off. By the time news of the military strike broke March 15, the Sandinistas were close to their objective of destroying contra supplies and bases along the Honduran border. And, as 3,200 US troops arrived in Honduras Thursday and Friday, Nicaraguan troops were already pulling back.

But the extent of diplomatic gains will depend on the outcome of direct cease-fire talks scheduled today.

As of press time, the contras reportedly had agreed to attend talks at the southern border post of Sapoa. A source familiar with thinking on both sides says the talks ``very likely'' will produce a 15-day truce during which the details for a national cease-fire can be worked out.

Diplomats here credit the Sandinistas with two deft moves - on the international front and at home - that could give them a political edge in coming weeks.

Amid conflicting reports of Sandinista incursions into Honduras, Managua called for the United Nations and the Organization of American States to come and ``verify'' what was happening on the border. (On Sunday, a UN spokesman announced that the organization would send an observer team Tuesday in response to President Daniel Ortega Saavedra's request.)

``By internationalizing the conflict so quickly - and warning of a US intervention - Ortega very nicely shifted the focus off the offensive and onto the question of what the United States would do,'' says a European diplomat. The US troops are planning ``military exercises'' in a show of support for Honduras.

``That's savvy. But there are still risks,'' the diplomat concedes.

One of those risks is that the US Congress will approve an aid package for the beleaguered contras. On Saturday, a bipartisan group of 10 US senators proposed $48 million in ``humanitarian aid.'' ``But,'' argues a foreign military observer here, ``if [the Congress] is set against further military aid, what good will more of this `humanitarian aid' do them now?''

On the home front, the Sandinista government reconvened a dialogue with 14 opposition parties. By resuming the ``national dialogue'' before today's talks, the Sandinistas rob the rebels of one of their longstanding demands: that democratization be discussed before any cease-fire.

The contras will be hard-pressed to explain why they will not accept a cease-fire at Sapoa this week, analysts agree.

``After seven years of war what have [the contras] accomplished? Nothing. They've made people miserable and the revolution has taken two steps backward and one step forward,'' says one South American diplomat. ``The Sandinistas have almost unraveled seven years of war with seven months of the peace process,'' he says, referring to last August's Central American peace plan.

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