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U.S. Dispatches Elite Troops to Salvador : Strategy: Bush met with security officials while a State Department task force monitored the hotel siege.

November 22, 1989|JAMES GERSTENZANG and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon dispatched members of the Army's elite Delta Force to El Salvador on Tuesday, an Administration official said, as the Bush Administration faced a crisis with several Americans trapped in the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador when it was seized by leftist guerrillas.

The unit, trained to carry out commando assaults on terrorist targets, was sent on a "very narrowly interpreted" mission to advise the Salvadoran military on possible tactics in seizing the hotel, rather than participating in any actual assault, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Late Tuesday, Salvadoran army officials indicated that the siege at the hotel had ended. It was not clear whether the Delta Force troops played a role in resolving the crisis.

Throughout the day, Administration officials insisted that the United States would adhere to its policy of not bargaining with terrorists.

According to reports from San Salvador, which was in the 11th day of an offensive by leftist guerrillas trying to overthrow the U.S.-supported government, four American soldiers and four other Americans, as well as citizens of other nations, were trapped for 13 hours in a hotel wing held by guerrillas from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Bush conferred during the day with senior members of the National Security Council. Other national security aides from throughout the government met in the White House situation room, and a 50-person task force at the State Department monitored the hotel siege and collected intelligence from the scene.

"We are making plans as necessary," said White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater earlier in the day, denouncing the rebels for embarking "on a despicable road of violence by threatening civilians, Americans and innocent citizens of all nations who may be in their path."

But officials kept silent on specific plans, leaving uncertain the planned role for the Delta Force.

"I won't rule out anything," Fitzwater said before the apparent end to the siege.

During the afternoon, Bush met with congressional leaders in a conference intended to focus on the upcoming U.S.-Soviet summit, but the discussion turned instead to El Salvador.

One legislator, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), said he was left with the impression that if the Americans were not allowed to leave quickly, "appropriate action would be taken."

In addition, the State Department warned American citizens not to travel to El Salvador and advised Americans living there to consider leaving.

U.S. Special Forces, who are based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., have trained Salvadoran counterterrorism units since the early 1980s, Pentagon sources said. Salvadoran police and military forces have received instruction in hostage rescue operations, infiltration of guerrilla cells and preemption of terrorism, the sources said.

Although U.S. law prohibits American military training of foreign police forces, Congress has granted a waiver in the case of El Salvador. The waiver was renewed this fall.

The Delta Force played the central role in the disastrous attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, in which eight men were killed.

A former military attache in El Salvador had said earlier Tuesday that he doubted that Delta Force units would have to be used. He predicted that the rebels, the government and the Americans eventually would accept a "negotiated, face-saving scenario" in which all sides could claim victory.

"The guerrillas get the evening news, Americans get their people back and the Salvadoran government can say it defeated the terrorists," this official said.

He added: "To me, it's a desperate act. It means they recognize their offensive failed."

On the other hand, a senior Administration official involved in Latin American policy said the seizure of the hotel, after a week and a half of fighting between guerrillas and government troops, had severely damaged the credibility of the Salvadoran army.

"So much for Salvador being under control," he said wearily.

Administration spokesmen quickly condemned the hotel seizure as a premeditated terrorist act, although reports later in the day from San Salvador suggested that the rebels may have retreated into the hotel as an unplanned result of a skirmish with the army.

"These Marxist guerrillas have shown their true colors," White House spokesman Fitzwater said. "They are attacking defenseless citizens in a civilian hotel and using the surrounding neighborhood of defenseless Salvadoran citizens as a shield against the government's forces."

Officials sought to demonstrate that the Administration reacted to this crisis more decisively than it did to the abortive coup against Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, on Oct. 3.

They noted that Bush immediately convened a group of high-level advisers, the "deputies' committee," to coordinate U.S. actions during the Salvadoran crisis. The deputies' committee, chaired by Undersecretary of State Robert M. Kimmitt, includes senior officials from the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Council staff.

In the Panama coup, some officials said, the Administration suffered from confusion because no single body coordinated information and action.

Times staff writers Doyle McManus and John M. Broder contributed to this story.

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