Honduras seeks US help with contras

Honduras is pushing hard diplomatically to get assurances that the United States will take steps to deal with thousands of Nicaraguan contra rebels living on Honduran soil. The effort is built on concerns that the next US administration will abandon the contras, leaving the Honduran military to disarm the fighters. In addition, Honduras could not bear the cost of permanently housing the hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguan refugees already in the country.

For the last several weeks the Honduran Foreign Ministry has been promoting a plan calling for an international peacekeeping force to be stationed along Honduras's borders with Nicaragua and El Salvador. Such a force would help reduce border tensions by preventing Salvadoran guerrillas and Nicaraguan rebels from using Honduras as a base to launch attacks on its neighbors. It could also, by implication, reduce the United States' direct role in the region.

In fact, say diplomats and US and Honduran analysts say the proposal's unstated aim is to force Washington to acknowledge responsibility for the presence of the Nicaraguan rebels on Honduran territory. Honduras, the United State's closest ally in Central America, has provided a base for the contras for the last six years.

``You can't take the Honduran proposal by itself. It is inextricably related to the military defeat'' of the contras, says Victor Meza, who runs the Honduran Documentation Center, a private think-tank in Tegucigalpa. ``Honduras is playing this as a card before Washington not before the international community.''

Foreign Minister Carlos L'opez Contreras made the proposal in a speech at the United Nations last month. In addition to calling for the peacekeeping force, he requested international help in dealing with the estimated 250,000 Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran refugees in Honduras.

In another move, Honduras announced late last month that it would not sign at this time a military agreement with the US that has been under negotiation for more than two years. Mr. Contreras said although his government had finalized the document in August and been ready to sign it, Honduras has since changed its mind. He gave no reason for the change.

The refusal to sign is seen as a further gesture of Honduran irritation. By coupling this with the call for an international approach to security, analysts say, Honduras is hoping that the threat of a diminished US role in the region will make Washington more responsive to its concerns. Since 1983, the US has given Honduras $1.25 billion in economic and military aid.

The 11,000 contras in Honduran base camps, while waiting for Washington to decide their fate, are being cared for with money from a US humanitarian aid program. But the program expires in March.

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