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Nicaraguan Truce Talks Resume; Both Sides Pledge Flexibility

February 19, 1988|MARJORIE MILLER | Times Staff Writer

GUATEMALA CITY — Nicaragua's Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contras on Thursday resumed direct cease-fire negotiations begun last month before Congress rejected further military aid for the rebels.

Both sides said they will be flexible during the three days of scheduled talks, but neither appeared to have altered their sharply divergent negotiating positions.

It was not immediately clear how the cutoff in American military aid for the rebels or expected congressional action on a Democratic plan to furnish some new, non-lethal assistance would affect the negotiations. Contra leaders have maintained that the military aid cutoff does not weaken their position at the bargaining table because their forces are still fighting.

The Contras and the Reagan Administration insist that only military pressure will force the leftist Sandinista government to make political concessions.

"The objective of our struggle, the democratization of Nicaragua, has not been achieved, and therefore there is no danger of the combatants abandoning their terrain," Contra leader Azucena Ferrey said.

Ferrey added, however, that by cutting off military aid, "Congress washed its hands like Pontius Pilate."

The rebels are dependent on airdrops of weapons, supplies and cash from a CIA-run operation out of Honduras funded under an expiring $100-million aid package given to the Contras last year.

Last month, Congress rejected a new $36.25-million aid package proposed by President Reagan, which would have provided $3.6 million in military aid. Democrats in Congress defeated the proposal, saying that a Central American peace accord signed last August should be given time to work, and they are now fashioning a proposal for the so-called non-lethal aid.

The cease-fire talks are an outgrowth of the August accord, which was signed by the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

At their first round of peace talks in Costa Rica last month, the Contras and Sandinistas each presented a truce proposal, but there was no serious negotiating. Apparently, neither side wanted to risk seeming intransigent before Congress voted on the aid package.

On Thursday, each side met separately here with Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo of Nicaragua, who is mediating the talks, and then met together late in the day at the offices of Archbishop Prospero Penados del Barrio of Guatemala City. The talks continued into the night.

Both sides said they expect the negotiators to deal with fundamental issues in the scheduled three-day meeting.

The Contras' team is headed by Jaime Morales, a former Nicaraguan banker now living in Miami, and includes two Contra field commanders. Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco heads the Sandinista team, which includes Nicaragua's army intelligence chief, Maj. Ricardo Wheelock.

The Sandinistas' truce proposal presented in Costa Rica focuses on the technical aspects of a cease-fire. It would allow the Contras to keep their weapons during a monthlong cease-fire, after which they would be reincorporated into civilian life.

The Contras call for sweeping constitutional reforms to limit the Sandinistas' power before they would agree to a cease-fire. They say the Sandinistas are, effectively, seeking their outright surrender.

"We have not offered surrender to the Contras," said Tinoco. "We have offered them the opportunity to transform their military fight into a political fight, to turn bullets into ballots."

The Contras want a three-way dialogue, with representatives of Nicaragua's internal political opposition joining in the negotiations with Sandinistas. Under this proposal, a cease-fire would begin at the same time as political reforms.

The Sandinistas insist that the Contras must put down their weapons before political reforms can be discussed; the Contras say the Sandinistas want to end the war without dealing with its causes.

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