The Nicaraguan government proposed to Honduras on Tuesday that the two countries, with the help of the United Nations and the Red Cross, jointly disarm and relocate the thousands of anti-Sandinista guerrillas operating along their common border.
Victor Hugo Tinoco, Nicaragua’s vice minister of foreign affairs, said the suggestion was designed to defuse the escalating tension between the two countries, which has led to increased fighting along the border.
The proposal came during the first day of a meeting sponsored by the Contadora Group, made up of Mexico, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, to resume work on a Central American peace treaty.
Honduras, while not referring directly to the Nicaraguan proposal, complained that the Nicaraguan army recently fired artillery across the border into its territory.
Honduras had charged earlier that Nicaraguan forces recently penetrated its territory as fighting became more intense between the Nicaraguan army and the contras, who operate out of base camps in the remote border area. The insurgents are trying to overthrow the Marxist-led Sandinista regime in Managua.
More than 5,000 contras are fleeing a Nicaraguan government offensive aimed at pushing them out of the country, Tinoco said. “Militarily, this is good for Nicaragua,” he went on, “but the situation along the border creates the possibility of a wider conflict, which we want to avoid. That is why we have made our proposal.”
The contras began operating in Honduras in 1982 with the tacit support of the Tegucigalpa government and logistical and financial support from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In recent months, Honduras has displayed concern about its role in hosting an armed, and sometimes undisciplined, guerrilla force.
The Contadora effort to arrange a settlement of the regional conflict was overshadowed here Tuesday by the Nicaraguan proposal, talk of the increased fighting in the region and the U.S. economic embargo against Nicaragua. There was little talk of the draft peace plan put forward months ago by members of the Contadora Group, diplomats said.
Adding controversy to the opening session, which was closed to reporters, was a complaint by Tinoco about the contras’ reported acquisition of SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles.
“What we said,” Tinoco told reporters later, “was that it is irresponsible for any government in Central America, or for the United States, to put that weapon in the hands of mercenaries. This is a dangerous escalation that places all civil aviation in the region in peril.”
Diplomats who attended the session said Tinoco’s statement could be interpreted as a veiled threat that Nicaragua may supply similar surface-to-air missiles to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. But Tinoco insisted, “That is not necessarily true. All we said is that this is a dangerous escalation, and it is.”
The U.S. economic embargo has drawn fire from most of the conference participants, including the governments of all four Contadora countries. Venezuela said in an official communique that the sanctions would harm Nicaragua’s private sector, thus undermining the chances of establishing “a mixed economy and ideological pluralism.”
Nils Castro, a member of the Panamanian delegation to the talks, said the embargo represents “a strong blow against Contadora.” He added, “The principal victim of the embargo is the Contadora peace negotiation process.”
Among the Central Americans, both Guatemala and Costa Rica--the latter usually one of the United States’ strongest allies in the region--declared that they would not support the embargo. Costa Rica said that support for the embargo would violate its customary principles of neutrality.