Hostage Standoff in Costa Rica Is Sign of Nicaraguan Discontent

Group demands Sandinista official steps down and $6 million

IN a sign of the simmering turmoil in neighboring Nicaragua, a group of kidnappers continued to hold 18 people hostage at Nicaragua's embassy here yesterday.

"It's a symptom of the great frustration and discontent felt by the people of Nicaragua," says Oscar Arias Sanchez, former president of Costa Rica and the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. "The hopes and expectations brought on by the end of the civil war have not been fulfilled. And a people who have endured decades of dictatorships and violence find it hard to learn democracy in a few days," he adds.

Ironically, the hostage-takers have chosen Latin America's oldest democracy as a venue to vent their discontent.

On Monday, three people - calling themselves the "Patriots, Politicians, and Militants of Yolaina" - took over the Nicaraguan Embassy in San Jose. Armed with submachine guns and dressed in army fatigues, dark caps, and red bandana masks, the presumed Nicaraguan dissidents took 18 hostages, including Nicaraguan Ambassador Alfonso Robelo, without firing a shot.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo flew in from Nicaragua on Tuesday, at the kidnappers request, to mediate.

The dissident group's demands include:

* The dismissal of Nicaraguan Army chief Humberto Ortega Saavedra and presidential minister Antonio Lacayo.

* $5 million to be given to the Catholic Church for food, land, and medical care for ex-rebels and handicapped veterans of Nicaragua's civil war, which ended shortly before the election of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in 1990.

* $1 million to fund the kidnappers' anti-Sandinista movement.

Nicaraguan officials flatly rejected the demands. Cardinal Obando y Bravo entered the Embassy twice on Tuesday to talk with the kidnappers. He said they rejected his offer of immunity if they give up and return to Nicaragua. An offer of asylum in Venezuela was also rejected by the abductors.

"We are not delinquents. We are young idealists who want the best for Nicaragua," the group leader, Jose Manuel Urbina Lara, told a local television station in a telephone interview.

"The pseudo-Sandinistas continue governing Nicaragua and massacring our people, which makes a fraud of the elections of 1990," the hostage-takers said in a statement.

The Chamorro administration has angered members of its own party coalition who feel betrayed by the policy of "national reconciliation." Mrs. Chamorro has allowed defeated Sandinistas - such as Army chief Ortega - to maintain control of the Army and police.

The president and her powerful son-in-law, Mr. Lacayo, have also worked with moderate Sandinista legislators.

Disgruntled members of the right wing of Chamorro's coalition have organized demonstrations in Managua in recent weeks, calling for her to step down from office.

And in the countryside, ex-rebels, known as "recontras" and ex-Sandinista soldiers, who are unable to find work or feed their families, have rearmed and gone back to the hills. Since December there have been dozens of battles in the northern highlands of Nicaragua between the Army and recontra groups.

Many of the recontras' demands are similar to those made by the hostage-takers.

The hostage-taking group in Costa Rica derives its name from the Nicaraguan town Yolaina, where a group of contras were killed in 1990.

It is not known if Mr. Urbina is allied with any of the recontras operating in Nicaragua.

In 1984, Urbina forced his way into the Nicaraguan Embassy in Costa Rica, seeking asylum from the Sandinistas who were in power. Urbina was granted asylum and later became a Costa Rican citizen. The number and identities of the other kidnappers are unknown.

Costa Rican officials are taking a hands-off approach. "This is a problem among Nicaraguans," Security Minister Luis Fishman says.

But a trained hostage-rescue squad is standing by if needed, says Costa Rican President Rafael Angel Calderon Fournier.

Food, blankets, medicine, a television, and radio have all been brought into the Embassy at the request of the hostage-takers.

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