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Contras on Offensive; Bid to Impress Congress Seen

March 20, 1986|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Anti-Sandinista guerrillas have attacked an electricity substation, a tobacco processing center and other targets in a series of recent assaults apparently aimed at impressing Congress before it votes on a $100-million aid package for the rebels.

A Western diplomat who monitors the Nicaraguan war closely said 2,000 to 3,000 of the guerrillas, known as contras, have entered Nicaragua from their bases in Honduras during the last 10 days.

"They are not doing anything big, but they are trying to show the Americans that they are not beaten," the diplomat said.

At Least 3 Killed

On Monday night, a force of more than 100 contras launched a mortar attack on a regional electricity substation at Yalaguina, about 135 miles northwest of Managua. A militia guard and a civilian technician were killed in the attack, officials said. They said at least one contra was killed and one was wounded and captured.

Damage to the substation has left about 150,000 people in the region without electricity.

On March 11, about 200 contras burned seven tobacco barns and four other buildings at a big tobacco processing center five miles from Jalapa, near the Honduran border. No casualties were reported in that attack.

The contras have carried out several other minor assaults in the last 10 days in the northern border area. Meanwhile, there and elsewhere in Nicaragua's rugged backlands, the Sandinista army has engaged contras frequently in combat.

An army report published Wednesday said that 115 contras had been killed in the previous nine days. There was no independent verification of that figure, and the army did not report its own casualties.

Most in Honduras

Since last November, the contras have been largely on the defensive. Military and diplomatic analysts in Managua estimate total contra strength at no more than 16,000. One foreign analyst said this week that all but 4,000 to 6,000 of them are now camped in neighboring Honduras.

The analyst, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said the contras are receiving regular shipments of U.S. aid. Congress last year authorized $27 million in non-lethal aid.

The administration of former Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordova blocked delivery of the aid through Honduras, reportedly to reinforce requests for more U.S. assistance to his country. But President Jose Azcona, who was inaugurated in January, has been letting U.S. planes carrying contra aid land at Aguacate airfield near the border, according to a diplomatic source.

Under last year's aid package, the Reagan Administration was barred from giving the contras anything but "humanitarian" aid, which includes boots and uniforms but not arms, ammunition and military training. The aid package now proposed by the Administration includes $70 million in military aid.

Ortega Comments

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was quoted Wednesday by Nicaraguan newspapers as saying that American public opinion is against the contra aid.

"Even in Congress, it does not seem sure that they will approve the $100 million," he said. But if the aid package is rejected, he added, Reagan will find a way to keep helping the contras.

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