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Reagan Warns of Sandinista Offensive : Urgently Appeals for $100 Million to Prevent Defeat of Contras

March 01, 1986|JACK NELSON | Times Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON — President Reagan, adding a note of urgency to his appeal for $100 million in aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, warned Friday that the Sandinista government is planning a major offensive to "finish off" the rebel forces.

Because of the Sandinistas' plans and "more evidence than ever" of Soviet, Cuban, Libyan and Palestine Liberation Organization involvement in Nicaragua, Reagan said, the United States must provide immediate aid to the rebels, known as contras , or see them overwhelmed by the Sandinistas. The leftist Nicaraguan government then would threaten destabilization of neighboring governments in Central America, he said.

Meeting with a small group of journalists at the White House, Reagan and two senior Administration officials emphasized the President's determination to pull out all stops in pushing for the aid, despite heavy opposition in Congress and a letter from 18 senators urging that the aid package be withdrawn. The package includes $70 million in military aid and another $30 million in humanitarian aid, including food and medicine.

'Bad and Growing'

Stepping up the anti-Sandinista rhetoric, one of the senior officials--both of whom spoke on condition that they not be identified--called the Nicaraguan government "a cancer in the real meaning of the word--something that's bad and growing and could easily get out of control."

Photos of cargo shipments and other evidence, the official said, have disclosed a "very substantial buildup" of Soviet and Cuban military aid in Nicaragua. In the last five years, he said, Nicaragua has received about half a billion dollars in military aid from the Soviets and their satellites.

Reagan said he was "going to push very hard" for the aid package. "If we don't help the freedom fighters (contras) now," he said, "a Communist Nicaragua will over the next few years attempt to destabilize its neighbors in Central America, cause untold violence and pain for the people there and create what communism always creates--a huge refugee machine."

At the same time that Nicaragua, Cuba and the Soviets "have decided to make a big push now and finish off the democratic resistance," he said, the contras "have never been stronger," with more men in the field and more support than ever from the people.

'They Need Weapons'

Pressed to explain why the contras have not been more successful if they are stronger and have more support than ever, Reagan said he had meant that Nicaraguans were rallying to their side in increasing numbers. "But they can't throw rocks at those Soviet gunships or stop tanks with bare hands," he said. "They need the weapons, the tools."

U. S. officials and the contras themselves have acknowledged their inability to carry out successful military operations in Nicaragua since the Soviets first delivered helicopter gunships to the Sandinistas in November, 1984.

And at a breakfast session with reporters, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) said the contras are not in a strong position and will crumble without aid.

Lugar said the United States should tell the Sandinistas that "we'd be willing to call it quits in terms of the contras and military aid and all the rest of it if you would hold an election like the Philippines did and under the conditions that they did. . . . Therefore, until you do that, we're going to provide $100 million and give the President a lot of discretion."

Democrats' Opposition

House Democrats expressed confidence that they will defeat Reagan's request despite the President's argument that the contras are fighting to bring democracy to Nicaragua just as a popular movement brought democracy to the Philippines.

"The argument doesn't hold water," Majority Whip Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said. "In the Philippines, we condemned a fraudulent election. In Nicaragua, we're funding a guerrilla war."

Foley said that Democrats will call on the Administration to abandon military pressure against Nicaragua and promote the Contadora peace negotiations among the nations of Central America.

However, Foley and Rep. Mel Levine (D-Los Angeles) said they believe Congress will vote to continue non-military aid to the contras at roughly the current level of $54 million per year. "It's a 90% given," Levine said.

Primary Policy Goal

At the White House, Reagan emphasized that the primary goal of American policy is not a contras' victory over the Sandinistas but a political solution that would provide for the two sides to form a coalition government.

Asked if he could conceive of a military victory by the contras if a political solution fails, the President said that if the Sandinistas are "going to fight to the death and to the last man, I suppose that would be the outcome."

A military victory by the contras would be a realistic goal, he said, because the Sandinistas, "regardless of their great strength in armaments," are losing the support of the people.

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