SANTO TOMAS, Nicaragua — An official of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front arrived at a Roman Catholic village chapel one recent Sunday with 20 heavily armed soldiers. They did not come to hear Mass.
The Sandinista leader wanted to ask churchgoers to form a local peace council that would urge U.S.-backed Nicaraguan guerrillas to lay down their arms under the Central American peace agreement.
But as he and the priest discussed the idea, the soldiers caught sight of eight contras lounging in the shade 300 yards away and opened fire with assault rifles and grenade launchers.
Peace Process Difficult
An ensuing battle in the nearby village of El Zapotal ended bloodlessly, witnesses said. But it killed the idea of a village peace council, as churchgoers fled into the woods.
The sudden armed skirmish, a reflex of the six-year war, points up the difficulty of making peace in Nicaragua by a Nov. 7 deadline set by the regional plan. It is also a sign of the Sandinistas' trouble in mustering popular support for an outright surrender by the contras.
Because the accord fails to spell out steps toward a cease-fire, each side has set its own terms.
Rebel political leaders have called for cease-fire negotiations. They propose keeping the guerrillas stationary, protected, armed and re-equipped until the Sandinistas have lived up to the accord's requirements for unrestricted civil liberties and "total political pluralism."
Bypassing the contra leaders, the government says it will seek cease-fire talks with individual rebel field commanders. But so far, it has defined a cease-fire as nothing more than a mechanism by which rebel troops can trade in their weapons for amnesty.
To promote its amnesty offer, the government is asking prominent non-Sandinista citizens in nearly every town in the war zones to form local peace councils. More than 100 councils have been set up, according to Sandinista officials.
President Daniel Ortega announced last Tuesday that the army will soon declare unilateral cease-fires in certain rural zones so that the councils can go out and make contact with rebel troops and commanders.
It is a controversial effort that is likely to achieve mixed results at best, judging from visits last week to two towns close to the fighting in central Nicaragua.
In Rio Blanco, a peace council formed a week ago is cooperating with the Sandinistas. Some of its 12 members know the local contra chief and sound eager to talk to him. Eighty townspeople with sons in the rebel army have asked the council to help bring them home. The local Red Cross headquarters is building a new wing to receive returning contras.
"There is going to be an avalanche of contra deserters," predicts Denis Artiles, the top Sandinista official in Rio Blanco.
But here in Santo Tomas, no peace council exists yet. Nineteen community leaders were asked to form one, and 12 declined.
In meetings with the Sandinista mayor, the other seven leaders have insisted that the proposed council have authority to monitor government violations of the peace accord. And they want the council to supervise the amnesty as a neutral party, without encouraging rebel defections.
"The Sandinistas want to use us in an amnesty campaign to reduce the number of contras shooting at them," said Jose Damicis Sirias, a lawyer here. "People are more interested in getting the Sandinistas to change their ways. They think the contras are patriots who are fighting communism."
Since the peace accord was signed Aug. 7, people in Rio Blanco and Santo Tomas have seen no letup in the fighting that has killed more than 200 people from both towns since 1981.
While government posters and leaflets urge rebels to accept the amnesty offer, only four have done so in Santo Tomas and two in Rio Blanco in the past seven weeks, Red Cross officials say.
Clandestine contra radio stations are urging the rebels to ignore the amnesty offer, and there are reports of rebels executing would-be defectors.
Juan Rafael Miranda, 24, who abandoned a 250-man rebel force, said in an interview that he had seen four such executions since the unit learned of the peace accord.
Miranda said that he, two brothers and an uncle--peasants forcibly recruited from their farm last May--fled two weeks ago during his night watch at a rebel camp near Santo Tomas.
In Rio Blanco, many of the 7,000 war-weary townspeople say they hope the peace accord will bring relief soon.
Rebel forces camped in the lush green hills outside town call their bearded commander Montanita, or Little Mountain. Townspeople know him as Eduardo Harquin Sosa, a bus driver who abandoned his job in 1984 to take up arms.
"Now and then, I see him on the road and wave," said Juan Antonio Fuentes, president of the Red Cross chapter and a peace council member. "He is a man we can talk to. Most of his troops are boys from the town. We're all mixed up in the war. If we are flexible, we can make this peace accord work."