MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In an unexpected move, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed Thursday to indirect negotiations with U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels to end six years of war.
The decision, announced to meet the first deadline of a Central American peace accord, was the Sandinistas' biggest concession of the war. It was a tacit recognition of the Contra insurgency. Managua had refused to deal with the Contras, insisting they were under the control of the United States, their creators.
In El Salvador, President Jose Napoleon Duarte complied with the five-nation peace pact Thursday by calling a unilateral halt to offensive military operations against leftist guerrillas.
Ortega said Managua will make a cease-fire offer through an intermediary to exiled leaders of the Contras. He did not outline the proposal or name a possible mediator, and he refused to discuss "the institutional framework or the laws of the country."
Alfredo Cesar, one of six directors of the Nicaraguan Resistance, called the announcement "a victory for us." He said he will seek a truce that would allow armed rebel troops to remain in the field until the Sandinistas accept "irreversible" democratic reforms.
Pardons for 1,000
Addressing a rally by tens of thousands of Sandinista party activists, Ortega also announced pardons for 1,000 of the country's 6,500 or more political prisoners.
Thursday was originally the deadline for full compliance with the peace accord signed on Aug. 7 by the presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It is aimed at ending guerrilla wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador and a minor insurgency in Guatemala.
The five nations' foreign ministers last week extended the date of final judgment of the accord to Jan. 4 but said each nation must show progress by Thursday toward meeting its requirements.
The accord calls for cease-fires, a cutoff of outside aid to insurgent forces, amnesty for political opponents and rebels who lay down their arms, and full press and political freedoms.
Although it does not specifically require the Sandinistas to negotiate with the Contras, the author of the agreement, President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, had demanded publicly that they do so.
The Reagan Administration, while calling for such talks, had expected to use Managua's intransigence to coax $270 million in new Contra aid out of Congress early next year.
Announcement at Rally
Ortega's announcement of an about-face brought a hush over his huge audience in Managua's Revolution Plaza. Party members had been instructed to rally in support of the government's oft-stated refusal to negotiate with the Contras. One sign in the plaza read: "If the Contras don't surrender, we will talk only with bullets."
The Sandinista leader said negotiations were necessary "to take away the pretext of our enemies and to unmask those who say they want peace but in truth don't."
"This cannot be confused with a political dialogue," he said. "We have never negotiated power with the counterrevolution. We are not doing it now and we never will."
He also repeated his call for talks with the United States on security issues such as the size of Nicaragua's army and the presence of Soviet Bloc military advisers.
Returns From Moscow
Ortega made his announcement hours after returning from Moscow, where he met with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and attended celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Foreign diplomats and rebel leaders speculated that the Soviets, who supply most of Managua's military and economic aid, may have asked Ortega to accept cease-fire talks.
"The Soviet Union is really pushing the peace plan," said an Asian diplomat here. "It doesn't want to aggravate a conflict so close to the United States, especially at the time of Gorbachev's upcoming visit."
The announcement also focused speculation on who will mediate the talks.
Arias and rebel leaders had proposed Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the outspokenly anti-Sandinista leader of Nicaragua's Roman Catholic Church. The cardinal heads the National Reconciliation Commission named by the government to monitor the peace accord.
No Preference Indicated
Obando said that Vice President Sergio Ramirez informed him of the government's decision in advance but gave no indication of its preference for a mediator.
Contra leaders said Ortega's failure to propose a mediator indicated his opposition to the cardinal.
"We don't see how he can come up with anyone with stronger moral backing or better experience than the cardinal," Cesar, of the Nicaraguan Resistance, said. "We are not insisting on him, but we reserve the right to accept or reject whoever the government proposes."
The Sandinista leader also said he has decreed an end to the nationwide state of emergency and an amnesty for prisoners.