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U.S. Warns Nicaragua on Buildup : Arms Plan Called Justification for More Contra Aid

December 14, 1987|ROBERT C. TOTH and MICHAEL WINES | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The White House, reacting to Sandinista government plans to build up its army and security forces to 600,000 and get Soviet MIG warplanes, repeated its previous warnings Sunday that the introduction of high performance weaponry and warplanes into Nicaragua will be treated "with the greatest seriousness."

At the same time, it portrayed disclosures about the planned buildup by Nicaraguan Defense Minister Humberto Ortega as justifying past Administration concerns about the Sandinistas and its calls for aid to the Contras fighting in Nicaragua.

The American people will now understand that Nicaragua wants to become another Cuba "in terms of the extension and projection of Soviet power into this hemisphere," White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. said in a television interview on Cable News Network.

'People Will Be Upset'

"The American people will be terribly upset about that," he predicted, "and I think that support for the U.S. position for aid to the Contras--the freedom fighters--will increase as a result of that growing realization."

Congress has already approved $3 million in humanitarian aid for the Contras this year. The Senate has authorized an additional $15 million--$9 million more for humanitarian aid plus another $6 million for "transportation" to deliver the aid to Contras in the field inside Nicaragua. The authorization is to be taken up in a House-Senate conference, probably this week.

In a related matter, both Baker and the President's national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, denied reports that President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev reached agreement on restricting the flow of weapons to the belligerents in Nicaragua, although they confirmed that Gorbachev had made a passing reference to such mutual restraint.

Baker Tells of 'Exchange'

Baker said that in "an intriguing exchange," lasting perhaps 15 seconds as their final meeting ended, Gorbachev said that "maybe in Nicaragua we could just stop sending any arms except small arms for police work to the Sandinista government, if you will stop sending assistance to the freedom fighters. . . ."

"But it was at the very end (of the summit). There was no follow-up available because of time, and I don't know what he meant by it. But it's something . . . we will pursue," he added.

Baker suggested that Gorbachev's comment, which he said was made "not by accident," would upset the Sandinista regime by hinting at a more cooperative Soviet attitude in Central America. Soviet restraint would at minimum abort the ambitious Nicaraguan military buildup as well as constitute a political blow to the Managua government.

Ortega's unexpected disclosures were believed timed to preempt information in an interview, conducted Thursday for publication today, by a Sandinista defector, Maj. Roger Miranda Bengoechea, formerly a top aide to Ortega.

Ortega's speech came after the Washington Post asked him for comments on Miranda's interview, and it confirmed much of Miranda's information, including plans for a greatly expanded military by 1995 and the acquisition of advanced Soviet planes, missiles and artillery.

Powell, on the ABC television program "This Week With David Brinkley," was asked if it is still Administration policy to take military action if necessary to keep Soviet MIGs from being used by Nicaragua.

"We would view such an introduction of advanced Soviet weaponry into the region (as) a very serious matter," he replied. "I wouldn't say what we would, might or might not do at the time. . . . But we didn't make this up, the Sandinistas are telling us this," he added, in referring to what he called Ortega's "incredible statement."

Powell said the Sandinistas' plan to put 20% of the population under arms "presents a direct threat to their neighbors." Further, he added, putting most of the military-age males in the military is "a good way to keep control of the political situation" at home.

Powell reiterated that the United States would see the "intrusion into our hemisphere of this kind of weaponry with the greatest seriousness." Asked if that statement constituted a warning to Moscow and Managua, he replied:

"I would suggest it would not be in the interest of U.S.-Soviet relations, and it would not be in the best interest of the people of Central America, for such weapons to be introduced into that region."

Separately, sources in Washington said Sunday that House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has been asked to send observers to monitor slow-moving cease-fire talks between the Contras and the Sandinista regime, scheduled to resume today in the Dominican Republic.

Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Nicaraguan prelate who is an intermediary in the cease-fire talks, asked Wright last week to make the move, according to officials close to the negotiations who refused to be named. One source said that former U.S. arms control negotiator Paul H. Warnke would head a three-person Wright delegation to the talks.

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