With war on hold, Sandinista troops are relaxed and confident

Looming over a rise on the gravel road leading into Nicaragua's northern highlands, a Sandinista Army camp appears like a mirage of war. Eight giant Soviet transport trucks block the road. Sandinista soldiers at the checkpoint warn about land mines laid by the contra rebels. Off to the side, on a grassy knoll overlooking an undulating mountain range, several dozen Sandinista troops stand in an orderly semicircle.

But there are no commanders barking instructions here, no maps pinpointing rebel positions, no artillery experts demonstrating new weapons.

These teen-age soldiers are paying undivided attention to something out of a different world: a color television set beaming out the latest pop-music videos. One soldier polishing his rifle comments wryly, ``It's our musical training.''

For Sandinista troops, the 60-day truce - which is scheduled to last at least until May 31 - serves as a time to build morale. Some troops have dedicated themselves to training exercises. In a nearby village, other troops gathered recently for an arm-wrestling tournament. As contra troops hunt for food rations just a few miles north, government soldiers here seem well-fed, relaxed, and confident that the demise of the contras is imminent.

Two miles up the road, at a general store that serves as a local Sandinista watering hole, Jorge P'erez C'esar - an official with the Interior Ministry - gloats over the contras' predicament. With no food, no military aid, and no rapid end to peace negotiations, the contras ``are finished,'' he says. ``They can only fight for a few more months, but a guerrilla war would take another six years.''

At the Sandinistas' last outpost before the cease-fire zone - one of seven under the agreement - bunkers and bazookas are reminders of the heavy shelling that took place just months ago. Today, the battlefield is silent.

Three Sandinista guards, caps over their faces, catch up on some sleep at the entrance of the outpost. Inside the compound, near an empty pool covered with Sandinista slogans, 21 cochorros - newly trained ``cub'' recruits - attend an orientation session.

Jos'e Zelaya, a veteran soldier from the 326-44 Battalion, plays host for the visiting journalist. Despite six years of combat experience, the battle-scarred soldier carries a dog-eared copy of the Sandinista official manual ``Political Preparation 1988.'' With the March 23 peace accord swinging the war sharply in the Sandinistas' favor, Mr. Zelaya and his comrades hope they only need to prepare for victory.

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