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Ex-Colony Fears Guatemala : Belize Wants Britain's Troops to Stay on Its Soil

January 10, 1985|BERND DEBUSMANN | Reuters

BELIZE CITY, Belize — Belize's newly-elected conservative government is hoping to persuade Britain to make a clear-cut promise for the continued presence of British troops in its only former colony in Central America.

Belize won independence from Britain on Sept. 21, 1981, along with a pledge from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that a 1,800-strong British garrison would remain for "an appropriate period of time."

Britain left its troops in Belize, a sparsely-populated haven of stability in a region torn by violence and war, to deter Guatemala from sending its army across the border to enforce a century-old claim to Belizean territory.

"We should try and get a more definitive commitment from Britain," Prime Minister Manuel Esquivel said after his conservative United Democratic Party (UDP) won a landslide victory in general elections on Dec. 14, the first since independence.

Suggestions that U.S. troops could replace the British are viewed with alarm in Belize, whose people credit their country's tranquility to Her Majesty's troops and their four Harrier jump jets, Puma and Gazelle helicopters, 105-millimeter artillery pieces and tracked reconnaissance vehicles.

"We don't think U.S. troops would be helpful," Foreign Minister Dean Barrow said . "We know their deployment here would suck us into the conflicts of Central America."

Wedged between Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is the only predominantly black and English-speaking country in a region the United States considers its sphere of influence.

The United States has military personnel in Honduras and El Salvador, helped raise a 15,000-strong insurgent army against Nicaragua's left-wing government, and provides vast economic and military aid to its allies in Central America.

Echoing statements by his defeated predecessor, George Price, the new prime minister pledged that his government will do "everything in our power to have the British troops stay. The British garrison is needed."

Esquivel is expected to visit Britain early in 1985 to discuss the subject with Thatcher, whose government has stubbornly resisted spelling out the precise meaning of "an appropriate period."

Five rounds of talks, the latest last July between negotiators from Britain, Guatemala and Belize, have produced little apparent progress and failed to dent Guatemala's refusal to recognize Belize as an independent nation.

But in his first statement on the issue since Esquivel formed his new government, Guatemalan Foreign Minister Fernando Andrade Diaz-Duran sounded a note of conciliation, saying there was "a feeling of brotherhood" between Guatemala and Belize.

"We have maintained a permanent claim to the territory (of Belize) . . . but Guatemala is prepared to take part in negotiations with flexibility, good will and creativity," he told reporters in Guatemala City.

No date has been fixed for another attempt to solve the dispute, which dates back to the days when Belize was the British Crown colony of Honduras.

Western diplomats say the present security arrangement serves both Belize and Guatemala because the British presence prevents left-wing Guatemalan insurgents from using Belize as a sanctuary and supply base.

"It seems everybody wants the British to stay except the British themselves," Barrow said.

In October, 1983, Belize reacted with concern to London newspaper reports--not officially denied--that Thatcher hoped to withdraw the garrison within a year.

The year is over, and in the absence of alternative defense arrangements there is no sign that the garrison here is about to be dissolved.

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