Leftist Rebels Fortify Positions in San Salvador

FIGHTING continues in many parts of San Salvador. Leftist guerrillas control populous neighborhoods in the northern and eastern parts of the capital, despite strong counterattacks by the United States-equipped Salvadoran Army and Air Force strafing. More than 300 people were killed around the country since the rebels entered the capital Saturday.

The audacious rebel offensive appears to have achieved its principal goal: to demonstrate the guerrillas' military capability and disprove assertions that they had been significantly weakened by the decade-long civil war, analysts here say.

With this show of strength, the rebel Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) appears to be trying to strengthen its hand at the bargaining table and change what it calls ``the correlation of forces.''

Even as the FMLN entered dialogue and negotiations with the government, they were convinced that the rightist US-backed government was not prepared to make significant concessions without FMLN military pressure. FMLN sources had promised that the guerrillas would significantly step up their activities in the fall.

The FMLN's plans for a major offensive focusing on the capital became an open secret when the the group suspended peace talks with the government Nov. 2, following the Oct. 31 bombing of a union headquarters, which left nine dead. Although the Salvadoran military knew the guerrillas were going to attack the capital, they were unable to stop the attack from happening. The FMLN infiltrated 1,000 to 1,500 guerrillas into the capital and moved ammunition and arms into position for the offensive.

US Ambassador William Walker termed the offensive a failure, as did the right-wing newspapers, the government-controlled radio network, and the Salvadoran military. Mr. Walker said the guerrillas had meant to overrun military bases and assassinate key government functionaries and had failed in these objectives.

``This spasm of violence and destruction is an attempt of the FMLN to demonstrate the damage it can inflict on the population,'' Walker said.

Other analysts say the principal objective of the rebels was to seize and hold areas of the city where they have some support, principally the working-class districts that circle the northern, eastern, and southern part of the capital.

There has been heavy fighting as government troops have tried to dislodge the well-entrenched guerrillas. But the Army has been stretched thin by the magnitude of the guerrilla attacks in the capital and in provincial capitals like Santa Ana, San Miguel, Zacatecaluca, and San Francisco Gotera.

The Army has had to rely on using C-47 airplanes and helicopters to strafe and rocket rebel positions. There have been reports of numerous civilian casualties from this strafing.

Meanwhile, the rebels were fortifying parts of the capital they dominate. The rebels appear to be preparing for what may become a bloody conflict with the well-equipped Salvadoran Army.

The rightist government moved quickly to restrict news of the rebel offensive by pressuring stations to stop their independent broadcasts and use government-produced programming within three hours of the beginning of the offensive.

President Alfredo Cristiani also declared a state of seige Sunday, suspending constitutional guarantees and declaring a dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Mr. Cristiani called the rebel offensive ``propagandistic'' and ``irrational'' and said the ``terrorists'' would get the treatment they deserved. Cristiani received support from rightists who called up the government-controlled radio network to denounce Ruben Zamora and Guillermo Ungo, two leftist politicians who returned to El Salvador in early 1988. Both are seeking protection in foreign embassies.

The guerrilla offensive, following on the heels of the bombing of the union headquarters, is a strong blow to the Cristiani government, most analysts agree.

``Everybody is surprised by the success the FMLN has had,'' says Rev. Edgar Palacios, coordinator of the Permanent Committee for a National Debate. ``The Army has always said that the FMLN doesn't have any popular support, that it's spent. But the offensive shows the opposite.''

``Just like the right has strength, the left has also shown that it has support and strength,'' notes Medardo Gomez, a Lutheran bishop.

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