YAMALES, Honduras — Equipped with food-laden backpacks, guns and grenade launchers, hundreds of Contras have streamed out of their base camps in Honduras and are hiking along mountainous jungle trails back into Nicaragua.
As the U.S.-backed guerrillas hastily empty their sanctuary, some rebels are torching their wood-frame huts and old uniforms in dramatic bonfires--a sign they do not plan to come back. Many of the neat campsites that dotted the steep green hillsides of Honduras' Yamales Valley, and which for years served as refuge to thousands of Contra soldiers, have become rubble-strewn collections of tattered, abandoned shacks and lean-tos.
In some camps, only women and children remain.
While the Contras have been trickling back into Nicaragua ever since opposition publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in national elections Feb. 25, the pace of departures has quickened significantly in recent days. By Sunday, Contra commanders asserted, as few as 1,500 to 3,000 able-bodied rebels remained in the camps. At one time as many as 15,000 Contras were encamped in this country.
The movement appears designed to allow the bulk of Contra fighters to sidestep an agreement signed March 23 that calls for rebels in Honduras to lay down their guns and disband by April 20, five days before Chamorro's inauguration. No deadline for disarmament was set, however, for rebels inside Nicaragua, where security enclaves are supposed to be established for returning Contra combatants.
Ortega is expected to demand immediate disarmament of the Contras inside his country during a two-day summit of Central American presidents starting today.
The exodus and the partial dismantling of the camps represent the strongest signal yet that the Contras' presence in Honduras--a sanctuary for the insurgents for more than eight years--is ending. But the arrival of armed Contras in Nicaragua raises the specter of renewed fighting, something both the rebels and Sandinista leaders say they do not want.
"Demobilization cannot happen one day to the next," said Marcos Orlando Navarro, a member of the Contra high command who uses the nom de guerre Comandante Dimas. "At the appropriate moment, we will hand over our weapons to the new government of Nicaragua, in Nicaragua."
Even before Contra leaders signed the demobilization accord, which was mediated by Nicaragua's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, at least half of their Honduras-based troops had filtered back into Nicaragua, according to rebel leaders and U.S. officials.
Though numbers are difficult to pin down and impossible to verify independently, rebel commanders claim that most of their fighting force--8,000 to 11,000 guerrillas--is now inside Nicaragua or on the way there.
Because of the timing of that shift in Contra concentrations, some critics have charged rebel leaders with signing a demobilization agreement that is, in effect, meaningless. But others have suggested that the Contras will use the agreement to show they are serious about disbanding while buying time, political space and leverage to negotiate terms inside Nicaragua.
Under intense pressure to disband from the United States, Honduras and the Chamorro transition team, the Contras hoped that by signing the accord they would no longer be cast as the major obstacle to peace in the region.
At the same time, Contra leaders argue that rebel fighters still suspicious of the Sandinistas are entitled to protect themselves. Further, they say, disarming in their own country is a matter of dignity and pride for the Contras, who want to be given credit for a role in forcing the Sandinistas to hold free elections in Nicaragua.
"It is better to go back, put down our guns before the new government and say: 'Mission accomplished,' " said Oscar Sovalbarro, head of the Contra negotiating team, who uses the nom de guerre Comandante Ruben.
As the fighters clear out of the camps, an estimated 40,000 wives, children and elderly parents will be left behind. Their fate remains a question: The American program that feeds them ends this month, and no international agency has as yet emerged to take charge of the group.
By April 20, it appears that only a small number of armed rebels will still be in Honduras for what will be a symbolic disarmament ceremony. On Saturday, a spokesman for Honduran President Rafael L. Callejas said that 80 Contras had already turned in their weapons to the Honduran armed forces.
Several Contra leaders last week sought to play down the movement of their troops back into Nicaragua, with some even denying that substantial numbers were leaving.
But on a visit to Yamales during the weekend, reporters saw ample evidence of a significant exodus, despite efforts by Contra intelligence personnel to limit their access to rank-and-file guerrillas.