MANAGUA, Nicaragua — U.S.-backed contras shot down a Sandinista helicopter and attacked four towns in south central Nicaragua in an attempt to cut a strategic highway, government officials said Thursday.
Defense Minister Humberto Ortega said that 20 Sandinista troops, including local militiamen, and an undetermined number of contras were killed in the battles, the largest rebel offensive since President Daniel Ortega declared a unilateral cease-fire Oct. 7 in three small zones of the country.
A contra spokesman said by telephone from Miami that rebels using a Redeye ground-to-air missile shot down a Soviet-supplied MI-17 helicopter gunship near Villa Sandino, about 90 miles southeast of Managua on Wednesday afternoon.
A Sandinista military source confirmed the loss but said he did not know the fate of the helicopter's crew. The contra spokesman in Miami said the Sandinistas had not been able to approach the downed helicopter because of intense fighting.
Ortega said contra units attacked Muelle de los Bueyes, a town 130 miles southeast of the capital, before dawn Thursday in an attempt to dynamite a bridge on the highway linking Managua with Rama, a river port that serves Atlantic shipping.