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Contra Arms Intercepted, Nicaragua Says

February 23, 1987|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

JUIGALPA, Nicaragua — The Sandinista army intercepted nearly four tons of weapons and supplies dropped by parachute last week for U.S.-backed contras in central Nicaragua, an army commander said Sunday.

It was the first seizure of smuggled weapons reported by Nicaragua's leftist government since the downing of a rebel supply plane last Oct. 5 and the capture of its American cargo handler, Eugene Hasenfus.

Capt. Ricardo Wheelock, the chief of army intelligence, said he knew of three recent successful weapons drops to contra forces. Western diplomats believe the number of drops this year is probably double that.

U.S.-supervised air drops to the contras were halted after the Oct. 5 incident but have resumed in recent weeks with disbursement of the first $60 million from a package of $100 million in military and other aid to the contras approved by Congress late last year.

"This is part of the $100 million they are waiting for," said Lt. Col. Roberto Calderon, commander of the 5th military region, as he showed reporters crate loads of rockets, bullets, boots and cash at the regional headquarters here.

An infantry battalion, acting on army intelligence, waited in the hills of Zelaya province, 25 miles southeast of San Pedro del Norte, at 2 a.m. last Friday as a DC-6 approached from the north, Calderon said.

The soldiers watched 14 white parachutes fall from the aircraft and recovered 13 of them, loaded with weapons and supplies, after the plane returned north, he said.

Cash and Ammunition

The cache displayed here included 120 mortars, about 600 grenades, a large quantity of TNT and 96 pairs of jungle boots, all of U.S. manufacture, as well as 84 Yugoslav-made rockets, 50,000 rounds of ammunition for AK-47 automatic rifles and the equivalent of $1,500 in Nicaraguan currency.

Army officials say that about 4,000 contras have infiltrated into the country on foot from base camps in southern Honduras since U.S. military aid was approved and that the rebels are counting on much of the aid to be dropped from the air.

The intercepted arms, Calderon said, were meant for a unit of 400 newly infiltrated contras who are moving south to reinforce a 1,500-man rebel battalion already operating here in the ranchlands of south-central Nicaragua.

He claimed the supply flight was supervised by the CIA and originated in either El Salvador or Honduras, but he would not disclose how the army detected it.

New Offensive Expected

The Sandinista army expects the contras, now in their sixth year of a guerrilla war, to attempt a major offensive soon "to help the U.S. Administration justify all the problems involved in continuing to aid them," Calderon said.

"Whether they can realize an offensive or not depends on their supply of weapons," the commander said. "And the only way to get them is from the CIA."

The CIA reportedly helped direct covert weapons drops to rebels inside Nicaragua after Congress cut off U.S. military aid to the contras in 1984. Hasenfus, the lone survivor among three Americans and a Nicaraguan in the cargo plane downed last October, said he made 10 such drops in 1986. Sentenced to 30 years imprisonment here, Hasenfus was pardoned in December and returned to the United States.

Army officials Sunday also displayed a 16-year-old Costa Rican mercenary, identified as Jose Martinez Hernandez, who was captured with rebel forces last week in southern Nicaragua.

The contras are so short of ammunition, he told reporters, that "they run, they don't fight," when confronted by Sandinista troops.

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