Salvador Rebels: Defeated or Just Bruised?

DEPENDING on who is doing the assessing, the Salvadoran rebels either suffered a major defeat in their November offensive, or they were damaged very little. The United States State Department and the Salvadoran government both say the rebels suffered a definitive defeat.

Local diplomats and some sources familiar with the Salvadoran guerrilla movement, on the other hand, say the guerrilla forces emerged so strong from the offensive that there may be additional attacks in the near future.

Based on Army claims of 2,132 rebel combatants killed and many more wounded, the State Department concluded that the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) had lost almost half its combatants and had been dealt ``a serious defeat.''

Some local diplomats, however, tend to find FMLN claims more credible. The FMLN says 401 of its fighters were killed in the offensive, including one of its top leaders, Dimas Rodr'iguez, the second-in-command of the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), the second largest of the five groups composing the FMLN.

``Most of their [FMLN] casualties were new recruits and militia members. Their experienced fighters are still there,'' according to a Western diplomat.

``The FMLN as an organization is still intact,'' the diplomat adds.

The FMLN appears to have pulled some of its units back from the cities and has stepped up its attacks against smaller towns. The Salvadoran military cites this as proof of its thesis that the guerrillas have no military strength left and are ``only capable of terrorism and sabotage.''

In recent weeks, the guerrillas have concentrated on economic sabotage. They have blown up power lines and disrupted the coffee harvest, the country's biggest source of export earnings.

Downed electrical lines resulted in an almost 50 percent reduction of electricity during much of the month, with nonfunctioning traffic lights causing major congestion in the capital. The Army has called up thousands of reservists to protect the large coffee farms.

The FMLN has kept up the pressure on troops deployed in the capital with brief incursions, such as the Dec. 18 attack on a shopping center in the suburb of Ciudad Merliot, which destroyed a large department store owned by a prominent member of the rightist ARENA Party.

The rebels appear to be taking advantage of reduced Army strength in the countryside, while keeping up the pressure on troops in the cities, say analysts at the Jesuit-run Central American University, where six priests were murdered by uniformed men in November.

Some sources familiar with FMLN thinking say the rebels are regrouping and rebuilding and are likely to step up their activities in the coming weeks.

In the event of another rebel push in the cities a key factor will be the level of support the rebels have. The Salvadoran government and military say that the rebels' call for an insurrection during the November offensive went unheeded by the population.

``Their principal failure was that the population didn't support them,'' says the private secretary to the president, Jos'e Francisco Guerrero.

Gauging the rebel's support is difficult.

Supporters are generally reluctant to admit they back the rebels in a country where 70,000 civilians have been killed in the past 10 years, most on the suspicion of sympathizing with the guerrillas.

During the rebel offensive, some in poor neighborhoods blamed the rebels for bringing on the military attacks that devastated their homes. But many residents helped build barricades and dig trenches.

The success of the rebels in clandestinely moving thousands of combatants and tons of arms and supplies - and in attacking throughout the city - indicates to some here that there may be more support for the rebels than the government or the military concedes.

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