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Sandinistas, Contras Agree to 2-Day Christmas Truce

December 17, 1987|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Sandinista and rebel leaders said Wednesday that their troops will observe a two-day Christmas truce, the first agreed-on hiatus in six years of hostilities.

Both sides accepted a truce proposal by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo without conditions. They also agreed to return to the Dominican Republic next week to resume talks aimed at achieving a lasting cease-fire.

An initial round of indirect talks there Dec. 3 and 4 ended in disagreement over political conditions for a holiday truce. A second round set for last Monday was canceled when the government balked at the cardinal's proposal for face-to-face negotiations with the U.S.-backed Contras.

A breakthrough came Wednesday when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega paid a visit to Obando, this country's Roman Catholic primate, who is mediating the cease-fire talks.

"We are going to decree a cease-fire on Dec. 24 and 25, days which we all know have great religious significance and which remind us of the need for peace in the world," Ortega told reporters after the meeting.

He said his government will send a team of foreign advisers to negotiate with the rebels, a face-saving move allowing for direct talks without breaking the Sandinista vow never to meet with Contra representatives.

Rebel leaders had agreed earlier this month to the cardinal's proposal for truces on Dec. 7-8 and Dec. 24-25 to mark the Catholic holidays of the Immaculate Conception and Christmas.

But after the first round of talks broke down, Ortega rejected a truce and declared, "We are going to continue hitting (the Contras) hard during this whole month of December."

Bosco Matamoros, a rebel spokesman, said in Miami: "We have always endorsed the cardinal's truce proposal. We are glad the Sandinistas have accepted it."

Both sides said they will shoot only if the other side strikes first at military or civilian targets during the truce.

Truce for Western Half

The Sandinistas have negotiated cease-fires with Miskito Indian commanders in eastern Nicaragua, where the rebel movement is treated by the government as an indigenous uprising. But there has never been a negotiated truce in the western half of the country.

To comply with a Central American peace accord requiring negotiated cease-fires, the Sandinistas first called a unilateral truce in October in four small war zones. The plan failed in its goal to get large numbers of Contras to surrender and accept amnesty.

In the first round of cease-fire talks, Obando proposed a holiday truce during which the government would decree a general amnesty, end restrictions on press freedom and lift the wartime state of emergency.

The rebels accepted the proposal. But the Sandinistas insisted that it be expanded to include an end to all outside support for the Contras.

The cardinal then abandoned the idea of political conditions on a truce. He said Wednesday that he was satisfied that Nicaraguans will not die in battle this Christmas and that peace talks will resume.

No 'Roar of Cannons'

"The government has assured me that we will not hear the roar of cannons or the noise of rifles when we commemorate the birth of Christ," he said.

The same political issues that deadlocked the first round of talks will be taken up again next week in indirect talks between Sandinista and rebel political delegations.

At the same time, technical experts will meet face to face to negotiate military aspects of a permanent cease-fire.

Ortega did not identify the foreigners who will represent the government in the technical talks. Other sources said they had not been named yet.

Besides avoiding direct contact with the rebels, the Sandinistas appear to be seeking involvement in the talks by prominent foreigners who could certify to the U.S. Congress that Managua is negotiating in good faith and thus cut the odds of renewed U.S. funding for the Contras.

Last weekend, the government asked House Speaker Jim Wright to send representatives to the talks, but the Texas Democrat's aides said he declined to do so for lack of an invitation by Obando. The government then asked the cardinal to delay the talks.

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