MANAGUA, Nicaragua — As hundreds of Nicaraguans saluted the body of former Contra commander Enrique Bermudez, veterans of his disbanded anti-Sandinista rebel army vowed Monday to take up arms again to avenge his unsolved assassination.
"If the Sandinistas want war, they're going to get it very soon, for the cowardly way they murdered our commander," declared Herman Matamoros, a 33-year-old former Contra from rural Chontales Province. He and other mourners here said they were regrouping to head for the rugged countryside where they fought the Sandinista army for eight years.
The murder and the bellicose reaction have alarmed members of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's administration. Chamorro, herself the widow of a famed assassination victim, halted the fighting and disarmed the 17,000-member rebel army last June, after ending the decade-old Sandinista revolution with an electoral upset.
Bermudez, who led the U.S.-backed rebel army until the final months of the war and returned from Miami exile last October, was shot once in the back of the head Saturday night while boarding his Jeep in the Intercontinental Hotel parking lot. The gunman apparently used a silencer and escaped, leaving no known witnesses.
The 58-year-old commander's body, clad in a dark suit and striped tie, lay in an open coffin amid a crush of mourners in the lobby of the government's office for Contra resettlement. It remained there from Sunday night until a packed funeral Mass on Monday morning.
Antonio Lacayo, Chamorro's son-in-law and architect of her government's policy of reconciliation with the Sandinistas, was jeered by the crowd at the wake as he walked past a crookedly hung presidential portrait to view the body. "Get out, Judas!" they screamed. "Death to Lacayo!"
"This is going to complicate things," Lacayo said in an interview after fleeing to an upstairs office. "We considered the fact that Enrique Bermudez could come home a great step in the reconciliation of the country. His death shows there are sectors that still believe in violence and gunfire and death. This crime is nothing more than a little act of war."
Fears of renewed fighting gained weight Monday when the Organization of American States, which is monitoring the Contras' resettlement, reported the deaths of three former rebels on Sunday in a land dispute with 40 unidentified armed men who invaded their farm in northern Nicaragua.
An international official with close Contra contacts said the raid and the assassination were certain to heighten feelings of insecurity among unarmed former rebels. Many veterans already resent Chamorro's slowness to provide them promised resettlement land and her decision to leave the national army and police in the hands of Sandinista officers.
"This is an explosive combination of grievances," the official said. "I am afraid the country's fragile peace could come unraveled."
After an initial outburst of jubilation by Sandinista militants, the opposition party's leaders joined Monday in condemning the Bermudez slaying. A party statement rejected assertions of Sandinista responsibility as "irresponsible and slanderous."
But Sandinista and pro-government radio stations continued to hurl accusations against the other side for killing Bermudez. Radio Ya, run by the Sandinistas, speculated that Bermudez was slain by the CIA, the aggrieved relative of a rebel war victim or the rival Contra faction that had deposed him as commander a year ago.
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua, avoided finger pointing in his homily at the funeral Mass. He urged mourners to pray "for those who have sinister plans, macabre plans of death . . . so that the Lord may change their hearts from stone to flesh and so that, if they have a (hit) list, they may repent and tear up that list."
The slaying shook Nicaragua like few other political assassinations in recent years. But unlike the murder of opposition publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, whose death in 1978 instantly fueled the Sandinista-led insurrection that drove dictator Anastasio Somoza into exile the following year, the consequences of Bermudez's death were not immediately clear.
Oscar Sovalbarro, president of the Civic Assn., embracing most former Contras, has called the murder a Sandinista provocation and urged his followers not to react violently.
But his leadership of the veterans organization has been challenged by more militant rebels since Sovalbarro became a vice minister of the government's Contra resettlement agency last month. At the militants' behest, Bermudez had become active in the movement again, promising to lobby harder for land, farm loans and housing promised by the government.
Foreign diplomats and international officials said the prospects for new fighting could depend on the outcome of a Contra leadership struggle that will not end with Bermudez's death. They regard the rebel leader now backed by the militants, Luis Fley, as a moderate.
But Fley, who stood guard over Bermudez's coffin during the wake, said neither he nor any other leader was capable of restraining the rebels who want to rearm.
Government officials said the slaying could undermine Chamorro's current mission in Europe in search of foreign aid. In any case, it has exacerbated divisions among her followers. Lacayo, for example, refused to blame the Sandinistas for the killing but was overshadowed by Vice President Virgilio Godoy, who declared that the former rulers "are maintaining their policy of assassination."