LA PINUELA, Nicaragua — A peace agreement signed two months ago has produced no letup in the fighting in Nicaragua.
The Sandinista army and U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras are waging intense combat north of La Pinuela and elsewhere along the country's mountainous central spine. Western military analysts say each side is maneuvering for advantage before the Nov. 7 cease-fire deadline set by the plan.
Prospects for peace on that date have been dimmed by the Sandinista government's insistence on setting cease-fire conditions unilaterally and by the rebel leaders' refusal to abide by any terms that are not negotiated.
In signing the Aug. 7 peace accord with four other Central American nations, leftist Nicaragua agreed to restore full press and political freedoms as the price of a cutoff of U.S. and other outside aid to the contras.
Last week, the Sandinistas began to comply. The opposition newspaper La Prensa and the Roman Catholic radio station, both shut by decree last year, were allowed to reopen, and a wartime state of emergency was eased to let unarmed opposition groups march in the streets.
On the battlefield, the Sandinistas are appealing to the contras through leaflets and radio messages to surrender and accept an amnesty offered under terms of the peace accord.
Interior Minister Tomas Borge announced Saturday that a contracommander and 400 men had surrendered in the Caribbean coastal city of Puerto Cabezas, an area of little combat, to become the first rebel unit to accept amnesty under the peace accord.
Starting Wednesday, the government says it will withdraw its regular forces from three relatively small battle zones in a unilateral cease-fire aimed at encouraging rebels to lay down their arms.
Contra leaders, who were not party to the peace agreement, are urging their troops to ignore the offered amnesty and the cease-fire and to keep shooting until the Sandinistas agree to negotiate.
Meanwhile, the Sandinista army has launched a major offensive in this part of Nicaragua, which is not covered by the government cease-fire. The contras operated fairly freely here for most of the summer, according to U.S. officials who monitor the war.
From the army base at La Pinuela, three counterinsurgency battalions with more than 2,000 Sandinista soldiers have been trying for five weeks to push about 700 contras away from populated areas, surround them and cut off their supplies.
'How Strong We Are'
"They say it's a show of weakness that we signed the peace agreement, but we are demonstrating how strong we are," said Lt. Manuel Machado, a Sandinista officer at the base. "We gave them a chance to surrender. Now we are striking them hard."
The Sandinistas have seized two batches of weapons dropped to the rebels by parachute from CIA-directed supply planes but have lost a Soviet-made helicopter that was shot down by a rebel-fired Redeye missile. The contras also destroyed a bridge a mile from the base, making it harder to resupply by road.
In 45 clashes between small ground patrols, the army has reported killing 56 contras. Government losses are not officially disclosed, but eight Sandinista soldiers are known to have died last month in a single encounter.
"They keep running away, refusing to fight us face to face," Francisco Largaespada, a 26-year-old Sandinista conscript, complained the other day as he and other soldiers boarded five helicopters to go contra hunting.
Another helicopter at the base carried away one dead and five wounded Sandinista soldiers ambushed that day by a rebel patrol.
The fighting here shows the strengths and weaknesses of both armies that have made the six-year-old guerrilla war a costly standoff.
Since they began receiving a $100-million allotment of U.S. aid a year ago, the contras have infiltrated at least 10,000 troops into the country from Honduras. Marching in small units, they have spread the war through the central highlands from northern Jinotega province to Zelaya in the south.
By June, the rebels had hit six small military outposts and a string of militarized farm cooperatives, electric towers and fuel facilities. But bolder attacks on larger brigade headquarters in three northern towns over the summer failed to breach Sandinista defenses.
While keeping the contras out of cities and major towns, the 85,000-man Sandinista army has been unable to engage and defeat large concentrations of rebel troops, as they are trying to do in the hills north of here.
Missile-firing contras have shot down at least six helicopters during the year. But contra leaders say this has only slightly reduced one of the Sandinistas' major assets, the air mobility of their counterinsurgency battalions.
The Sandinistas have failed to down a contra supply plane since last October. Their troops have reported capturing no more than a handful of the 30 or so monthly airdrops of money and U.S.-supplied munitions that keep the rebel army alive inside Nicaragua.