PIEDRA PACHA, El Salvador — A Cessna 310 airplane crashed Saturday in a Salvadoran soybean field with 25 anti-aircraft missiles that U.S. and Salvadoran officials said were sent from Nicaragua for Salvadoran guerrillas.
The officials said the wreckage is proof that Nicaragua's Sandinista government is arming leftist rebels who launched a major military offensive this month.
The Salvadoran military flew journalists to the crash site. They spoke to a farmer who corroborated the government story, but they were given little time there and interviewed no other witnesses.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega denied that his government sent the weapons, and a rebel spokeswoman declined to comment.
"We are bored with these accusations," Ortega told reporters in Tipitapa, Nicaragua. "They are false accusations."
A delivery of missiles to the guerrillas would dramaticly alter the balance of forces in the decade-old war. Since 1984, the U.S.-supplied Salvadoran air force has been the key to the government's success in preventing a rebel victory. The rebels have never used sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons.
Air force attacks allowed the military to retake the initiative in the urban offensive that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels launched Nov. 11 in San Salvador and the eastern provincial capital of San Miguel.
The guerrillas have damaged 12 army helicopters during the fighting, but brought down only one aircraft, an A-37 Dragonfly bomber. It was shot down with a heavy machine gun.
On Saturday, two reporters in a low-flying helicopter approaching the scene of the Cessna crash were wounded by a burst of gunfire, apparently from a rebel position.
Both were rushed back to San Salvador. Hugo Burgos, 28, a Salvadoran cameraman for Cable News Network, underwent surgery to remove a bullet from his side. Alfredo Hernandez Lopez, 31, a Mexican radio reporter, was hospitalized with a shoulder wound.
Reporters who reached the crash scene were shown 24 Soviet-Bloc SAM-7 missiles, one U.S.-made Redeye missile and other weapons.
U.S. Ambassador William Walker said the introduction of the heat-seeking missiles was "definitely an escalation" of the war.
"It puts to rest the claim that no one from outside has been putting weapons in here," he said. "It is some outside supplier who has a lot of SAM-7 missiles and the willingness to introduce them."
U.S. and Salvadoran officials have made frequent allegations of Nicaraguan and Cuban aid to the FMLN. The charges were the original justification for the Ronald Reagan Administration's support of right-wing Contras in Nicaragua.
The accusations, and the official Sandinista and Cuban denials, have always been difficult to prove.
The Bush Administration revived the issue early this year after rebels in El Salvador were seen with Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifles, the most common weapon of the Sandinista army.
Diplomats in Central America believe many of the rifles probably came from the Sandinistas. But they also note that fighters abandoning the Contra army's camps in Honduras have been selling their U.S.-supplied AK-47s on the black market in recent months; some might have ended up with the FMLN.
To bolster their allegations, the Salvadoran army showed off in May nearly 300 AK-47s and thousands of rounds of ammunition they found in a lumber yard in the capital.
Saturday's display of the downed plane recalled a headline-making propaganda coup during the last major rebel offensive in January, 1981.
The Salvadoran and U.S. governments said then that 100 guerrillas in five boats had landed from Nicaragua on a Salvadoran beach with Soviet- and Chinese-made weapons. Later investigation by journalists and American officials found the "landing" to be a hoax.
Salvadoran officials said Saturday that the Cessna flight originated in Managua. They showed reporters a blank leasing bill from the Nicaraguan air taxi service, SETA; maps of Central America and El Salvador, and a piece of cardboard with a handwritten flight plan in code.
About 5:30 a.m., the white, twin-engine Cessna apparently ran out of gasoline, sputtered and crashed in this farming village in San Miguel province, about 75 miles southeast of San Salvador, according to officials and Freddy de Jesus Garay, a 22-year-old farmer at the scene.
The aircraft appeared to have been flying east to west.
The bodies of four Latin men lay next to the crumpled aircraft, three of them in military fatigues. Officials and the farmer said the bodies had been pulled out of the plane. Two died immediately, one died later of his injuries and a fourth shot himself in the head, Garay said.
He said he saw soldiers pull the weapons out of the back of the plane. In addition to the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, the shipment included 21 82-millimeter mortars, a 75-millimeter recoilless rifle and three boxes of boosters for the missiles.