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Honduran Island Used as CIA Base for Contras

January 15, 1987|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A remote Honduran island in the Caribbean has reportedly become the main depot for a CIA-run military operation supplying rebels fighting to oust the Sandinista government of Nicaragua.

Rebel sources and military observers, who asked that they not be further identified, said Americans are overseeing rebel supply operations on one of the Swan Islands, once a support base for the abortive CIA-backed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.

They said that since October, when President Reagan signed legislation authorizing $100 million in military and other aid to the contras, U.S.-bought weapons and military supplies have been delivered regularly to the larger of the two small Swan Islands, which lie about 110 miles north of the Honduran coast.

Agents at Rebel Base

The sources said that other pieces of the U.S. aid program are also in place:

--At least two American intelligence agents are based at the rebels' headquarters, at Yamales in southern Honduras.

--A second group of rebels, nearly 140 men, has arrived in the United States for military training. The first group, about 125 rebels, completed a six-week course last month at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.

Since December, U.S. and rebel sources said, the newly equipped insurgent forces have been infiltrating into Nicaragua in small groups from their bases in Honduras. Contra civilian leader Adolfo Calero says that 10,000 contras are inside Nicaragua. According to Pentagon officials, 7,000 have infiltrated, but Nicaraguan and diplomatic sources say the number is much lower.

The Swan Islands site is said to have been selected for the supply operation because of the Honduran government's desire to keep contra activities out of public view, in order to avoid domestic controversy and to head off diplomatic complaints from Nicaragua. The Sandinista government of Nicaragua has filed suit against Honduras in the World Court for allowing the contras to operate from Honduran territory.

"The Hondurans want a lower profile," one source here said. "They want this out of the limelight."

Also, the Swan Islands were considered safe from any possible attack.

The sparsely inhabited larger island, two miles long, served as a CIA-run radio operation center for anti-Castro rebels during their attack on the Bay of Pigs in 1961. At that time, Nicaragua served as an air base for the right-wing Cuban rebels.

Sources said that last month one of the CIA-contracted supply planes operating out of the islands crashed in the sea and sank. They said the plane was of Spanish manufacture, with twin turbo engines, and that it had a mechanical failure. They said it carried no cargo at the time. One source said the crew was made up of Americans, and that none were injured.

An average of two supply flights a week have been arriving at the Swan Islands site, along with some shipments by sea, the sources said. They said there is a 6,000-foot grass airstrip and a couple of recently built warehouses.

From the island, they said, the supplies are ferried to Aguacate, a Honduran air base long used by the contras, and Palmerola, headquarters of the U.S.-Honduras joint task force Bravo. A rebel source said that contra pilots air-drop the supplies to their men in Nicaragua.

"The goal," one source said, "is to eventually be able to run (from the island) right into Nicaragua."

The shipments, the sources say, have included uniforms and other equipment for 10,000 men, 3,000 shoulder-fired light anti-tank weapons, several thousand M-79 grenade launchers and about 35 Soviet-made SAM-7 portable ground-to-air missiles.

"The troops are OK now," a contra leader said. "They are a lot better off than before."

One rebel source said the contras expect to receive about 100 U.S.-made Red Eye missiles. This is a weapon similar to the SAM-7.

"When you receive U.S. money," he said in reference to the U.S. weapons, "it's fair you buy their product."

The sources here said that on Jan. 4, about 140 contras began the second six-week training course offered by U.S. Special Forces under the military aid package.

Most of the trainees are members of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the largest armed rebel group. Its military leader is Enrique Bermudez and its civilian leader is Calero.

An FDN source complained that the U.S. trainers had tried to "brainwash" contra commanders into leaving the FDN and joining the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), a contra umbrella group.

"They kept saying that UNO is best, that the FDN should disappear," the source said bitterly.

UNO, formed under pressure from U.S. officials, is run by Calero and the more politically moderate Alfonso Robelo and Arturo Cruz.

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