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Managua Jittery About Contras, Seeks U.S. Talks

March 04, 1985|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega wants to get tension-easing talks going again with the United States, and a recent episode at the Managua power plant helps show why.

At the sound of an explosion, which knocked out a transformer, three truckloads of armed Sandinista army troops rushed to the power station. Militiamen took up positions along routes to the site, and secret policemen screeched up in jeeps to investigate. All the plant's workers were evacuated and questioned.

"We must not discard the likelihood that this (the explosion) was an assault by counterrevolutionaries," an army officer said.

Just a Short Circuit

A casual bystander might have thought the city was under attack, but the cause of the nighttime blast and a resulting brief fire was finally determined to have been a short circuit.

The jittery initial reaction shows the extent of the Sandinista government's preoccupation with U.S.-backed anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras, who are battling the regime.

Efforts to cope with the rebels have created large disruptions in Nicaragua's society and economy. These disruptions are behind Ortega's campaign to renew bilateral talks with the Reagan Administration, which, at present, is trying to win approval for renewed rebel aid, which Congress cut off last year.

Nicaragua may not be ready to say "uncle," a word used by President Reagan at a recent news conference, but the Sandinista government is calling for talks at every turn.

During an interview, Vice President Sergio Ramirez was asked what Nicaragua expects to get from the United States in response to last week's Sandinista offer to send home 100 Cuban military advisers and suspend acquisition of new weapons systems. He replied: "We expect a change (of attitude) toward negotiations. We expect Congress not to approve aid for the contras."

The Sandinistas have set containment of the contra threat as the goal for 1985, Ramirez said, adding: "In 1985, we will possibly win much military terrain. We have the military initiative."

Faced with a chronic shortage of bullets and boots, the contras have pulled back large numbers of fighters from areas, principally in the north of the country, where they had been operating aggressively. Rebels who remain fight less than they used to.

However, despite these apparent weaknesses, the contras are more difficult to wipe out. By operating in small groups, they avoid Sandinista army sweeps. For the moment, rebel fighting has dropped to a series of small encounters, sabotage and planting of mines.

"We are always vulnerable to armed bands running across our border," Ramirez conceded.

The challenge, he said, is to keep the contras from expanding. "They have perhaps 10,000 troops," he said. "If they reached 20,000 or 30,000, then you would be talking about civil war."

Takes 36% of Budget

The Sandinistas spare little in the effort to contain the rebels. Ramirez said that 36% of the national budget is directed against the guerrillas.

Western observers estimate that up to 60,000 soldiers have been deployed in Nicaragua's northern mountain regions to halt contra penetration from Honduras and, perhaps, to mount a major counterinsurgency offensive this month. The north is the operating area of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, largest of the rebel groups.

The Sandinistas also have obtained at least 10 new MI-24 helicopter gunships from the Soviet Union, Western observers say. At least four of them are usually parked on a taxi strip at the international airport in Managua. None has so far been reported in battle.

When they become operational, the helicopters will enable the Sandinista army to pursue the guerrillas across rough terrain without fear of ambushes or mines.

The Sandinista army also has about 25 Soviet troop-carrying assault helicopters.

Nation Heavily Armed

The helicopters, together with 200 trucks and other personnel carriers, more than 100 tanks, 200 anti-aircraft weapons and innumerable light weapons have apparently given the Sandinistas confidence enough to offer a moratorium on new weapons system purchases.

"That doesn't mean we will stop importing all arms," Ramirez stressed.

However, in a bow to expressed U.S. wishes, the Sandinistas do seem prepared to forgo for the time being acquisition of jet warplanes.

"If they so worry the United States, we will do without them," Ramirez said.

While regular soldiers have been moved north, civilian militias have been mobilized to guard towns and cities. The Sandinistas have organized numerous parades to whip up enthusiasm for the militia units, and newspapers are filled with glowing reports of new fervor for home defense.

Conscription Unpopular

Military conscription, one of the most unpopular defense measures taken so far by the government, continues in effect. Officials announced the opening of 333 offices to register youths newly turned 17. These will not be called up until next year, military officials said.

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