Nicaraguan peace talks stall on crucial issues. Contras want political space, Managua insists on rebel disarmament

Once again divergent strategies for ending the Nicaraguan war have halted peace talks between the government and contra rebels. At issue are the nature of the peace agreement and the time frame for disarming contra troops.

Four days of high-level political talks ended here Monday with an agreement to resume the discussions April 28-30.

The Sandinistas want a definitive agreement, with a tight deadline for contra disarmament, before the rebels are re-integrated into civilian politics.

The contras want a slower process during which they can decide if they are satisfied with the pace and extent of political change before agreeing to complete disarmament. The rebels say that before calling it quits they must obtain certain iron-clad guarantees from the government that changes will be undertaken to ensure them a political space in a peaceful Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas insist they must know that the contras intend to sign a definitive cease-fire as called for in the preliminary accord signed March 23 in the southern border town of Sapo'a. Otherwise, they fear the contras can use the 60-day truce currently under way to rest and restock supplies before attempting to resume the war, or at least seek further military aid from the United States.

Although the contras want to join the National Dialogue between the 14 internal opposition parties and the government, their demands run deeper.

``We want democratization and a Western form of government,'' top contra leader Adolfo Calero said in an interview in Costa Rica before returning to Managua last Friday. ``We do not want power sharing with the Sandinistas, we want real [political] change,'' Mr. Calero said.

As such, the contras are not likely to settle just for dialogue, without trying to wrest some bilateral guarantees from the Sandinistas before signing a definitive cease-fire.

``It is so obvious that if the contras only enter the National Dialogue [after signing an armistice] they are lost,'' one European diplomat here said. ``To do so would be surrender,'' he added, explaining that as there are 14 opposition parties plus the government in the dialogue, the contras cannot be sure what it would produce. This is especially true as their return may disrupt as easily as strengthen the opposition in the dialogue, further obviating the outcome.

``It is true the contras have nothing to do but negotiate their surrender,'' the diplomat added, ``but that is what makes this process so interesting: The contras are the losers, but they are still in a position to exact concessions from the victors ... and the victors must still respond.''

This is so, he said, because the Sandinistas must end the war cleanly and completely if they are to placate the third player in the peace process - the United States. ``The Sandinistas know the US political system very well,'' he said. ``They know [US] politics are versatile and that they cannot depend on the [presidential] elections ending the question of contra aid. So they must negotiate a total end to the war ... so that it's over in Washington [too] ... so a next president cannot open the Pandora's Box'' of military aid again.

As one South American ambassador said of the quiescent US policy towards Nicaragua since the Sapo'a accord: The Sandinistas know ``Uncle Sam might be sleeping at the moment, but he never naps for long.''

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