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Honduran Army Seeks to Expel Nicaraguans

March 20, 1988|Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The army began moving about 2,000 soldiers into the border jungles Friday with orders to drive out about half as many Nicaraguans still on the Honduran side, a ranking officer reported.

About 2,000 Nicaraguan soldiers had been reported in the mountainous area Thursday, the day after Honduras said they crossed the frontier pursuing Contra rebels.

The U.S. Embassy said about 800 American paratroopers--the last group of the 3,200 troops sent to Honduras--were dropped onto Palmerola air base Friday morning. The Defense Department says the U.S. troops will be in Central America for only about 10 days.

Planes on Call

The Honduran officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said two Honduran infantry battalions totaling 1,600 to 2,000 soldiers were moving in from a base at Juticalpa, about 90 miles west. He said warplanes were on call from the Tamara air base 15 miles north of Tegucigalpa.

Orders were given for the soldiers to expel the "invading troops" with whatever means were necessary, he said, adding that about half the original force had fled to Nicaragua and about 1,000 remained. Honduran soldiers began sweeping the border region for mines Thursday but none had been found, he reported.

Honduras gave the Sandinistas 24 hours to get their soldiers out of the country, but the ultimatum did not say when the time period began, the officer said. A 24-hour deadline initially was reported Wednesday.

Planes Raid Area

Nicaragua's northern military headquarters is near the frontier in Bocay and Honduran warplanes flew raids in the area Thursday, hours after U.S. troops began arriving in Honduras.

U.S. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci said the American troops from the 82nd Airborne and 7th Light Infantry were sent on a 10-day training exercise to provide "moral support" and would be kept away from combat.

Pentagon officials said privately that the four U.S. battalions would spend eight or nine days training with Hondurans in different parts of the country.

One battalion of the 82nd Airborne will be at Juticalpa, an official said, "but anyone who knows the country" would realize that the 90 miles "might as well be 4,000. There's nothing but mountains and jungle in between."

"The basic order that these troops aren't to get near the fighting still stands," he said.

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua said Thursday that his soldiers were ready to "combat and liquidate" the 82nd Airborne and would continue the offensive against Contra rebels in an area reaching from central Nicaragua to the border.

War Might Result

Alejandro Bendana, secretary-general of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, said "one step . . . could lead to another" in the border conflict, indicating that war might result.

The U.S.-supported Contras have secret bases in Honduras from which to attack across the border in their 6-year-old battle with the Sandinistas.

Manuel Suarez, spokesman for the Honduran armed forces, told local reporters that President Jose Azcona Hoyo would continue telephone conversations with Ortega and other Central American leaders, trying "to avoid a break in the peace process that has been developing in the region."

Among provisions of the peace plan signed by the five Central American countries Aug. 7 are cease-fires in civil wars and a ban on the use of one country's territory for attacks on another.

Azcona, 60, has been ill with flu for several days and canceled several meetings. The daily newspaper La Prensa said he was dealing with the situation from his home.

La Prensa printed an editorial cartoon in which Uncle Sam says, "There's an invasion in Honduras," while Azcona, a member of the armed forces and a diplomat, looks around asking, "Where, where, where?"

Members of the legislature demanded a meeting with Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez to explain why they were not asked to approve Azcona's request that American soldiers be sent in.

Michael O'Brien, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said about 800 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne arrived by parachuting into a field near Palmerola air base 40 miles northwest of Tegucigalpa at 7 a.m. Friday. He said it was a training exercise.

Reports on Thursday's air raids conflicted.

Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry blamed the United States and made a formal protest.

Reagan Administration officials said one of Nicaragua's Soviet-supplied helicopters was destroyed, but the Sandinistas denied it. Nicaragua is believed to have more than 40 military helicopters.

Honduras said its air force attacked only inside its own territory.

Suarez, the military spokesman, said the Honduran air force raided along the border near San Andres de Bocay, site of the Sandinista military headquarters in northern Nicaragua.

Reporters flown to San Andres de Bocay saw two jet aircraft, unidentified, fly in from Honduras just after noon Thursday and drop at least five bombs near the border.

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