Hostage-Taking Crisis Escalates Political Instability in Nicaragua

Dozens are held captive, including the country's vice president

A PAIR of back-to-back hostage takings by armed groups of former combatants from the 1980s contra war has intensified Nicaragua's volatile political conflict.

On Aug. 19, a group of rearmed contra soldiers, known here as recontras, kidnapped a delegation of government officials who had come to the remote northern town of Quilali for peace talks with the recontras. The soldiers are demanding the dismissal of Sandinista Army chief Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra and Presidential Minister Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren.

In retaliation, a seven-man commando team reportedly composed of former Sandinista Army officers seized the headquarters of the National Opposition Union (UNO) in Managua on Aug. 20 and are holding more than 30 people, including Vice President Virgilio Godoy Reyes and former legislative leader Alfredo Cesar, both prominent figures of the Nicaraguan right. Yesterday they seized a group of journalists covering the standoff.

The leader of the Sandinista commandos, identified as retired Army Maj. Donald Mendoza, says he will not let his captives go until the recontras release their hostages.

But recontra chieftain Jose Angel Talavera says he is not budging. Mr. Talavera is holding at least 37 people, including two Sandinista deputies, a half dozen officials of the Chamorro government, plus the heads of a Special Disarmament Brigade charged with overseeing the surrender of the irregular forces in Quilali.

The kidnapping by the recontras came two days after Nicaragua's National Assembly approved a broad, controversial amnesty bill for the recontras.

President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro proposed the bill as part of the government's effort to control an estimated 1,400 former soldiers in Nicaragua's mountainous northern areas.

While the main groups of former soldiers have political agendas, many others engage in simple banditry as a means of surviving in a country where jobs are scarce. The result has been a spate of revenge killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies that has kept many rural areas in perpetual commotion.

Talavera, who is known as "El Chacal" (the jackal), dismissed the amnesty offer, saying "we don't need amnesty because we haven't committed any crimes." A veteran contra subcommmander who lost one of his legs during the war against the Sandinistas, Talavera claims his goals are political, not criminal.

While his critics accuse him of the murder of peasant farmers, he says he simply wants to provide security for former contras who he alleges suffer under Sandinista persecution.

So far, no harm has come to any of the hostages. Both groups of captors have pledged to respect their physical integrity and human rights.

Efforts to free them, however, made limited progress over the weekend. Nicaragua's Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo was asked by all sides to serve as a mediator, but he has demurred, appealing for an end to the crisis.

Two mediating commissions were formed Saturday whose aim is to achieve a simultaneous freeing of all those being held.

One of the commissions, which included the participation of former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, persuaded the Sandinista commandos to release 14 of its initial captives, putting pressure on Talavera to do likewise.

The actions of the armed groups occur at a moment of sharpening polarization when right-wing political and business forces have been voicing calls similar to that of Talavera for the ouster of General Ortega and of Mr. Lacayo, who is President Chamorro's son-in-law and chief adviser.

Certain disgruntled UNO leaders even demand the calling of a constituent assembly to draft a replacement for the Sandinistas' 1987 Constitution and shorten Chamorro's term of office.

The coincidence between the demands of Talavera and those of Nicaragua's Higher Council of Higher Enterprise (COSEP) - a group of mainstream businessmen - seems to have convinced some Sandinista leaders that a plot is brewing.

Before going into a meeting on the crisis Friday night, Mr. Ortega claimed there was "total coordination" between the businessmen and the recontras' kidnap scheme, saying that "the big jackal is Ramiro Gurdian, the little one is the fellow in Quilali."

COSEP president Gurdian, a prominent banana grower, has been among the most vocal proponents of sacking General Ortega and Lacayo.

With other Sandinistas, the two Ortegas (who are brothers) have long alleged that various UNO leaders egg the recontras on, using them to achieve their politial objectives by deepening the country's political crisis.

Concerns of a violent conspiracy among recontras, business leaders, and UNO civilians seem to have activated an angry response in former Sandinista military men, whose target has been the UNO politicians.

National Assembly Vice President Reynaldo Tefel says "the violence is sinking us deeper and deeper, leading us to a point of no return.

"The only way out is a serious understanding between Sandinistas and the sensible parts of UNO," he says.

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