WASHINGTON — In a covert arrangement with the military dictatorships of Panama and Chile, Nicaragua's Sandinista government has obtained cluster bombs to drop on U.S.-backed Contras, according to U.S. officials.
The officials said their information is that Nicaragua and Chile, which do not have diplomatic relations, have used Panama as middleman in the transactions that began three or four months ago.
The officials said that Panama purchased an unspecified number of cluster bombs from Ferrimar, a Chilean armaments manufacturer with close ties to Chile's military government, then transferred them secretly to Nicaragua.
Denounced as Inhumane
Cluster bombs spread shrapnel over a wide area. Many human rights and disarmament activists have denounced their use as inhumane. The United States stopped sending them to Israel following charges that Israel improperly used them during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.
Spokesmen here for the three countries said they had no information about such a sale but that the story sounded improbable.
Bosco Matamoros, a Contra spokesman contacted in Central America, said rebel forces inside Nicaragua have recovered several canisters from cluster bombs used against them by Nicaraguan forces in bombing raids Oct. 7, 8 and 10. He added that Cyrillic alphabet markings indicate that the bombs were Soviet-made, and he said he was not aware of any evidence that Nicaragua is using similar weapons made in Chile.
U.S. officials, while declining to offer specific information, insisted that the cluster bomb sales took place. They also said the United States is certain that Chilean-made cluster bombs were used in recent air attacks against the Contras by Nicaraguan-operated Soviet Antonov 26 transport planes.
The officials cited the alleged arms transfer as the most dramatic example of what one called "a pariahs' international" in which various Latin American authoritarian regimes cooperate with each other despite wide ideological gulfs.