MATAGALPA, Nicaragua — Emilio Rojas, 20, a Sandinista soldier with a baby face and a downy wisp of a mustache, used to hike for days in pursuit of U.S.-backed guerrillas.
In recent months, however, helicopters have made it easier for Rojas and other soldiers to engage the contras , as the rebels are known.
"When the enemy is out there in the mountains, and we can't get there by truck, they take us in helicopters to make contact faster," Rojas told a reporter.
He and other members of his counterinsurgency battalion had come to a government farm near Matagalpa for a reunion with relatives. Part of the trip from the war zone was by helicopter.
Soviet-supplied helicopters are changing the war in Nicaragua, giving the Sandinista People's Army a big logistical lift and a tough new edge in its campaign against the contras.
Since August, the Sandinista forces have been attacking rebel forces with MI-24 assault helicopters. This is a swift and effective gunship that has been used extensively by the Soviet Union against rebels in Afghanistan. Heavily armed and armored, the MI-24 can carry rocket pods or missiles under its stubby winglets.
The Soviet Union shipped at least six MI-24s to leftist Nicaragua last year, but the first verified report of their use in combat did not come until August of this year, at La Trinidad. Hundreds of contras carried out a daring attack on the town, on the Pan American Highway about 85 miles north of Managua, but were routed within hours by the Sandinista forces.
Rebels 'Losing Initiative'
La Trinidad has come to be seen as something of a watershed in the Nicaraguan war. Cmdr. Joaquin Cuadra, the country's vice minister of defense, said in a mid-October press conference that, before La Trinidad, the contras did not foresee "the great possibilities" that modern attack helicopters would give the army. Now, Cuadra said, the rebels "are completely losing the initiative."
Cmdr. Javier Carrion, recently promoted to deputy chief of staff, said the MI-24s have been used in about a dozen operations since La Trinidad.
The army also has begun making frequent use of MI-8 transport helicopters in the last three months, Carrion said in an interview at his headquarters in Matagalpa, a provincial capital about 80 miles from Managua, the nation's capital. He said Nicaragua has 12 MI-8s, which carry troops into battle, resupply them and evacuate wounded. They also serve as gunships, Carrion said.
Another military source said the army actually has 16 to 18 MI-8s. The contras say they have shot down several MI-8s and MI-24s, but Carrion said none have been lost in combat.
Since August, he said, government forces have broken up concentrations of contras attempting to mount a major offensive in the interior, starting with the attack at La Trinidad. "The importance of helicopters in this operation has been vital," Carrion said.
Specially Trained Units
Also important have been the firepower of Soviet-made artillery and the fighting skills of specially trained counterinsurgency units called BLIs--the abbreviation, in Spanish, for Irregular Warfare Battalions.
A military source said the Sandinistas have at least 24 pieces each of 122-millimeter artillery, with a range of 14 miles, and 152-millimeter artillery, with a range of 7.5 miles. They also have 24 MB-21 rocket launchers, formidable truck-mounted weapons that fire from 40 barrels, the source said. He said the number of fully operational counterinsurgency battalions has increased from seven late last year to at least 13.
Carrion said the increased use of helicopters, artillery and Irregular Warfare Battalions has radically changed the nature of the four-year-old war.
"It is a different war, definitely a different war, with a big advantage for us," he said. The Sandinista advantage, he added, has become irreversible. "The contras may achieve some partial military successes, but they can't change the general situation."
One Advantage for Contras
The only important advantage the contras have, according to Carrion, is intelligence information received from U.S. spy planes that fly over Nicaragua.
A foreign military analyst agreed that the Sandinistas clearly have the upper hand.
"They have been able to identify where the contra forces are and get units in to break them up before they can hit in force," the analyst said, asking not to be further identified. "The contras have been on the strategic defensive."
But he noted that the contras have just begun to benefit from $27 million in U.S. non-lethal aid approved by Congress in June. "The next six months are going to be pretty important in terms of what the contras can do with this new support they are getting," he said.
Although the Sandinistas may be ahead, they are not coasting. Sources in Managua and Washington say they have been bringing in large shipments of new Soviet weapons--possibly including SA-6 medium-range missiles designed to shoot down jet fighters.
Anti-Rebel Units Formed