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El Salvador Intensifies Its Air War Against Guerrillas

July 17, 1985|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

SAN SALVADOR — The air war in El Salvador, an object of mixed military reviews and heavy criticism from human rights groups, is growing in intensity as the armed forces here acquire more and more weaponry.

The bombs dropped by the country's small fleet of jet fighters are heavier than those dropped last year. More rockets are being fired from increasing numbers of helicopters that also are armed with rapid-fire machine guns. Slow-flying propeller driven planes pepper the countryside with thousands of bullets.

The combat fleet is expected to grow further, a reflection of Salvadoran and U.S. military opinion that the air war has crippled the five-year old leftist insurgency here. Virtually the entire Salvadoran air force is U.S.-supplied.

Increased firepower, coupled with sophisticated aerial reconnaissance by U.S.-piloted planes, has had one major achievement: discouraging the rebels from massing troops for large-scale attacks. But it is not clear whether aerial attacks, especially bombing, actually kill many guerrillas.

A side effect of the air war--some say it may be a primary objective--has been that civilian backers of the guerrillas have been terrorized and have taken flight from rebel-dominated areas.

Human rights groups charge that the Salvadoran air force engages in "indiscriminate" bombing of civilians.

It is difficult to verify any of these charges because the guerrillas have mined many of the approaches to the areas they control and ambushes by both sides have made other parts of the country insecure.

Interviews by The Times with refugees from three frequently bombed regions and with relief workers with access to battle zones yielded little evidence to support the charge of widespread bombing. There are many tales of bombing and strafing, but such attacks do not seem to be indiscriminate and few civilian casualties have been reported.

Most of the witnesses are civilians who sympathize with the rebellion and have relatives under arms.

Nonetheless, given the increasing power of the bombs and the stepped-up strafing plus the rebels' penchant for living with or near their families and supporters, the menace to civilians appears real.

"The bombing announces death," said Ramon Ardon, a resident of Corozal, in the region of Guazapa mountain, a target of air attack.

The Salvadoran air force is dropping an average of 129 bombs a month this year, compared to 140 in 1984, according to U.S. figures. However, last year, most of the bombs dropped were 500-pound explosives. This year, more than half weigh 750 pounds.

The workhorses of the bombing fleet are nine A-37 Dragonfly attack jets. Three of them were delivered here in January. Delivery of another one is expected soon, and Western observers expect the fleet to eventually number an even dozen.

Each A-37 is also equipped with rockets and a rapid-fire "mini-gun" in its nose. The mini-gun can spray an area with up to 6,000 bullets a minute. The effect on trees and buildings was once described by a pilot as like "hay going through a threshing machine."

During the Vietnam War, U.S. pilots used the Dragonfly for low-level attacks on villages thought to harbor guerrillas. Salvadoran pilots, on the other hand, often drop their bombs from high altitudes, making the attacks less accurate.

The air force also flies five O-2 "Push-Pull" propeller planes that fire 2.75-inch rockets.

The use of combat helicopters has added greatly to the monthly fusillade. Between the O-2s and the choppers, an average of 900 rockets a month rain down on the countryside this year, compared with 500 last.

The Salvadoran combat helicopter fleet consists of 43 UH-1H gunship and troop transport helicopters, each armed with a pair of machine guns. Six Hughes 500 choppers also are equipped with mini-guns.

The United States is sending six more UH-1H choppers this summer, and the Salvadorans have requested four UH-1M helicopters that are fitted with night-vision equipment.

This year, two AC-47 "fire support platforms" made their debut in El Salvador. The AC-47s are revamped, twin-engine DC-3s, armed with a pair of .50-caliber machine guns. The planes circle combat zones at a slow pace and pour fire on targets selected by special reconnaissance equipment. They are most often used to protect helicopter landings of troops.

The Salvadoran air force recently bought three more reconditioned AC-47s to operate in rotation when the other planes are being repaired. Two more are on the way.

Rebel officials have long said that air strikes discourage their troops from massing for attack. And, as a result, large-scale assaults on military installations or towns are now rare in El Salvador's civil war.

During a recent interview, Shafik Handal, one of five top rebel commanders, said the insurgents "reserve the right" to obtain anti-aircraft rockets. He declined to specify the type or the possible source.

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