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Survivors Dispute Contras, Managua in Linder's Death

May 01, 1987|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE DE BOCAY, Nicaragua — Survivors of a guerrilla attack in which an American engineer was killed have contradicted both the government's initial report that he was slain after being captured and the guerrillas' assertion that he was caught in a crossfire between rebel and militia forces.

Four armed and uniformed militiamen were working at a power plant construction site here when U.S.-backed contras attacked it and killed the American, Benjamin E. Linder, according to two survivors.

Linder was also armed, but neither he nor the militiamen were able to shoot back when the rebels hurled six hand grenades at them from about 10 yards away and opened fire with automatic weapons, the survivors said.

The engineer, who was working for the Sandinista government, died of shrapnel wounds in the head, and two Nicaraguans--a militiaman and an unarmed worker--were also killed in the Tuesday morning attack. Four construction workers survived.

Beyond contradicting both the government and contra versions of the attack, the accounts by two militiamen interviewed here Wednesday also underscored a recurring issue of the five-year-old war: whether the presence of armed workers or militiamen at a Sandinista civilian project makes them legitimate military targets for the rebels.

Hundreds of armed and unarmed Nicaraguan professionals working for the Sandinista revolution, including 166 teachers and 52 doctors, have been reported killed in rebel attacks. Linder, 27, of Portland, Ore., was the first such American victim.

Linder had arrived last week in this war zone farming community, 182 miles northeast of Managua, to build a hydroelectric plant to bring electricity to the village's 3,000 residents. Last May 1, he electrified the nearby town of El Cua, his home since 1984, with a similar project.

Militiamen Recruited

Eulogio Moran, a local official of the National Farmers and Cattlemen's Union, said Linder recruited four militiamen, along with two other men from San Jose de Bocay, to help build the new plant because of a belief that such projects, in themselves, are rebel targets in need of protection.

"Here the rebels do not respect the development of the people," Moran said.

Two foreign reporters who drove here Wednesday heard occasional mortar and machine-gun fire in the Bocay Valley, which is a major route of infiltration by the contras from their camps in Honduras.

Townspeople said that the rebels have considerable support among peasant farmers outside San Jose del Bocay but that the attack was the first inside the town since 1983.

The construction site is on a stream at the edge of town, less than a mile from the main road through it.

Cecilio Rosales, 40, one of the militiamen, said about six rebels attacked from a wooded ridge above the site just after the seven-man construction crew came to work at 8:30 a.m.

Note-Making Begun

Normally, he said, one or two militiamen stand guard with AK-47 assault rifles while the others work, but on Tuesday, "we had just barely arrived when they attacked."

"Benjamin sat down, took out a pad and pencil and started to make notes about our work assignments," recalled Santos Centeno Garcia, 45, another surviving militiaman.

Centeno said that the American's AK-47 was on the ground and that he had put down his own rifle to go mix concrete.

A rebel grenade hit Linder in the back of the head and killed him instantly, Centeno said, and the entire work crew "jumped for cover."

The two Nicaraguans were killed by subsequent rebel gunfire, he said. They were identified as Sergio Hernandez, a militiaman, and Pablo Rosales, who was not armed.

The rebel band escaped into the rugged hill country outside town, pursued by an army patrol, townspeople said.

President Daniel Ortega led more than 1,500 mourners, including Linder's parents, at the engineer's burial Thursday in the northern city of Matagalpa.

In a slap at the Reagan Administration's hostility to Nicaragua, Ortega told the crowd: "Benjamin did not come to Nicaragua in a plane full of weapons, but with a heart full of love, joy and hope, which grew from his conviction that ethical values are above the illegal policies of the United States."

Earlier in the day, more than 100 Americans working for the Sandinista cause demonstrated for a second day outside the U.S. Embassy in Managua, blaming the Administration for the engineer's death.

One speaker denounced what he called "the murder of an unarmed humanitarian aid worker."

The Sandinista government has not reported or acknowledged that Linder and some of his work crew were armed. In a protest note to the United States on Tuesday, it said the American was "captured and later killed."

The Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest rebel group, issued a statement in Honduras saying that Linder died "in the midst of a fire-fight between one of our patrols and a group of militia of the Sandinista army" accompanying him.

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