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Assassinations by Contras in Honduras Told

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Times Staff Writer

Armed foreign groups, among them U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels known as contras , were responsible for a series of disappearances and assassinations within Honduras during the last four years, Honduran military sources charge.

The victims of these human rights abuses included Hondurans and nationals of El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Latin American countries living here, the sources said.

The abuses were uncovered as part of an armed forces investigation of reported disappearances in Honduras between 1980 and 1984. Many of the victims vanished or died at the hands of the military during the time when Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, a firm friend of the United States, headed the armed forces, the sources said.

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Sent Into Exile Alvarez was removed from his command by dissatisfied fellow officers in March, 1984, and sent into exile. His successor, Gen. Walter Lopez, launched the current investigation.

Nicaraguan rebels, who have operated in Honduras with CIA backing for more than three years, were responsible for a number of victims, the sources said. The contras acted at the request of Honduran officers, these sources added.

The aim of Nicaraguan rebel activity, at least initially, was to curb the flow of arms being supplied by Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime to leftist guerrillas fighting the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador. Interception of such weapons was a principal reason for U.S. support for the contras.

Officially, the armed forces have made public only vague results of their investigation of the disappearances. A military communique released last month said: “There are suspicions that some of the people reported as disappeared could have been victims of the vendettas of irregular armed groups of the left and right, not Honduran, who in the past have operated clandestinely in the national territory.”

Because of growing sensitivity to the presence of the contras in Honduras, public attention is beginning to focus on the alleged involvement of some of the Nicaraguans in human rights abuses.

“We are concerned that some of the contras were involved in criminal acts,” a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said.

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The military investigation is politically sensitive both in Honduras, which is facing a presidential election this year, and in the United States, where Congress is expected to be asked to vote soon on requests from the Reagan Administration for renewed funding for the contras. Such funding was cut off last year.

Exact numbers of victims of these abuses are difficult to come by. The Honduran Human Rights Commission, a private entity, counts a total of 135 politically motivated assassinations and 138 reported disappearances between 1980 and November, 1984.

The abuses occurred at a time when bloodshed and intrigue from neighboring countries was spilling over into Honduras. At one point in the early 1980s, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans of both the left and right were said to be chasing each other’s sympathizers and agents in this country.

Salvadoran leftists were responsible for kidnapings and bombings, the military sources said, and Sandinista agents carried out several attacks on their enemies.

Salvadoran rightists went after leftist sympathizers, and the contras first searched for gunrunners and then for Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and others with ties to the leftist regime in Nicaragua or the guerrillas in El Salvador.

One presumed disappearance victim was an Argentine carrying an Ecuadorean passport and trying, in this country, to help the guerrillas in neighboring El Salvador, one military source said. The Argentine suddenly “vanished off the streets,” the source, with knowledge of the investigation, added.

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“The country was an open hunting ground for anyone,” he said.

The military investigation at present centers on a counterintelligence unit created in 1981 by the Honduran armed forces.

Gen. Alvarez, the ousted commander, founded the unit, known as Battalion 3-16, to interdict arms traffic between Nicaragua and the Salvadoran guerrillas. Members of the unit were trained by Argentine and U.S. experts, Honduran sources said.

“The arms (smuggling) network was broken fairly early, but then the unit got into other things,” a recently retired senior military official said.

Subsequent disappearances included Honduran citizens and foreigners suspected of sympathizing with either Nicaragua’s Sandinista government or leftist rebels in El Salvador, he added.

Young Officers Unhappy Eventually, groups of junior military officers reportedly became upset with the illegal detentions and with killings.

“No one would have minded (open) detentions. There are laws to cover that,” a military officer said. “But when someone disappears after being arrested, that upsets people.”

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That dissatisfaction helped fuel Gen. Alvarez’s downfall. Since he was ousted and went into exile in Miami, the United States has encountered local resistance both to helping the contras on the Nicaraguan border and to allowing Salvadoran troops to be trained by U.S. advisers on Honduran soil.

Gen. Lopez, Alvarez’s successor, launched the investigation of the disappearances and killings under pressure from human rights groups in Honduras and from junior officers.

Gen. Alvarez’s old counterintelligence unit, however, still exists.

“Everything that Alvarez had is there,” a U.S. official said. “The question is how do you use it?”

The military’s December communique stopped short of blaming Honduran military men for any of the human rights abuses.

Critics of Alvarez say the contras were employed to kidnap victims because they did so without questioning legalities.

“It was easier to order a Nicaraguan to commit a crime inside Honduras than a Honduran,” one critic said.

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The contras operated a counterintelligence unit that supplied the assailants, Honduran sources said, but the activity by foreigners stopped when Alvarez was ousted.

Frank Arana, a spokesman for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the main contra group, denied that guerrilla operatives were responsible for any of the abuses.

A ranking U.S. Embassy official said that he had not heard of “involvement of the contras in internal Honduran politics.”

In Washington, staff members of the House and Senate committees on intelligence said that they had heard allegations that a contra “hit squad” was active in Honduras but had not been able to substantiate any details.

“It seems there was a guy who headed a squad that was up to no good,” one staff member said. “But we were told that he was removed for appearances’ sake, and we never confirmed a link to (Gen.) Alvarez.”

A Honduran military spokesman, Col. Elvir Sierra, declined to confirm or deny the reports.

The December military communique said that the investigation will continue for another 90 days.

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Young military officers are reportedly pressing the investigating body to release more specific details of its findings, believing these will show involvement of higher-ranking officers.

Some human rights officials assert that the investigation is concentrating on the activities of foreigners to shield activities by members of the Honduran military.

Civilian opposition politicians see the investigation as an opportunity to discredit President Roberto Suazo Cordova.

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