In an effort to calm a tense region along their border with Nicaragua, the armed forces of Honduras have evacuated at least three frontier base camps operated by anti-Sandinista rebels, Western diplomatic officials here say.
The primary camp closed down by the Hondurans is known as Las Vegas. It has been the headquarters of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, largest of the insurgent organizations fighting the Marxist-led government of Nicaragua.
The Honduran army is said to be occupying Las Vegas. Rebel officials in Tegucigalpa declined to comment on the closures, and reporters are now forbidden to visit the frontier posts.
"Our armed forces . . . have proceeded to increase custody of the frontier zone with Nicaragua," a recent Honduran army communique said.
The evacuation is the latest evidence of strain along a frontier that has become a focus of violence and intrigue in Central America--a place where arms, rockets, guerrillas, agents and would-be spies cross under the friendly cover of jungle.
Western officials in Tegucigalpa say that the anti-Sandinista contras were moved away from the border to an unspecified location deeper inside Honduras. It is not clear how many guerrillas were transferred, because many of the contras have recently been slipping back into Nicaragua to continue their three-year war against the Sandinistas.
Earlier this month, Nicaraguan government troops crossed the Honduran border in an attempt to bottle up the rebels and clashed with Honduran army soldiers. One Honduran was killed.
The incident prompted Honduras to assert more control over areas of the frontier where the rebels hide.
Such low-key action is common on the porous Honduras-Nicaragua border. The mountainous frontier is the sanctuary for thousands of contras. Until last spring, these insurgents received direct aid from the United States through the CIA.
During the past few weeks, both the Nicaraguan government and the insurgents have reported stepped-up rebel ambushes and sabotage within Nicaragua. Estimates of armed guerrilla strength range from 7,000 to 14,000 men.
To thwart contra penetration and make their Honduran sanctuaries less safe, the Sandinistas lob artillery shells into Honduras, but they usually fall off target.
Recently, the mayor of San Marcos de Colon, which is near a contra camp known as Las Minas, forlornly displayed a twisted rocket shell that he said landed near the town.
In mid-May, the Honduran armed forces showed off projectiles from Soviet-made Katyusha rocket launchers that supposedly landed in Honduras. Honduras also protested to the United Nations the presence of 10,000 Nicaraguan soldiers on its borders "supported by an incredible force of artillery."
Honduran officials charge that Nicaragua is undertaking a "silent invasion" of subversives who they say enter Honduras amid the steady flow of refugees.
The Hondurans say that such Nicaraguans, rather than enter refugee camps, scatter throughout the country to promote subversion.
Honduran and U.S. officials say that seven agents from the Sandinista General Directorate of State Security, the Nicaraguan secret police, were captured near Las Vegas last month. According to a Honduran Col. Elvir Sierra, the seven entered Honduras to establish supply routes and arms caches for rebel groups opposed to the Honduran government.
It was not clear why Nicaragua would send its own agents on such a mission. There are many dissident Hondurans living in Nicaragua and Cuba who might be willing to take part in such infiltration. Some Honduran observers believe that the target of the infiltration may have been the contra ranks themselves.
During a visit to the Las Vegas camp not long ago, reporters were permitted to interview a young woman who is called "The Crane" because of her slender height. "The Crane," who interrupted the interview three times to change her colorful pantsuits, said that she was sent to Las Vegas to make love to contra leaders and eventually to kill them. She added that before killing anyone, she was converted to the rebel cause.
Col. Enrique Bermudez, leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, said that "The Crane" is under close observation to see if she is truly a contra convert or just another Sandinista spy.
Reagan Administration spokesmen have said that Nicaragua set out to subvert Honduras even before the CIA began backing the contras in 1981. As a result, counterinsurgency training has been a regular part of U.S. military aid to Honduras. U.S. Special Forces units from Panama and Ft. Bragg, N.C., have taken part in several anti-guerrilla exercises in Honduras during the last year.
All this activity makes the Hondurans nervous. Honduras has been pressing the United States for more explicit guarantees of active support in the event that an unfriendly neighbor invades this country.
And Honduras, concerned about the presence of unmanageable rebels on its territory, has long threatened to completely shut down contra operations if it appeared that the movement was collapsing for lack of U.S. backing.
U.S. funding for the contras was cut off by Congress about a year ago, and the Administration has since fought a losing battle in Congres to get it restored.
However, the reported relocation of the three contra camps was probably not undertaken as part of Honduran threats to end contra operations within this country, diplomatic observers said. Instead, the move appears to reflect Honduran fears that it cannot defend its border against Nicaraguan incursions.
"The army has to show it can perform its basic function--protecting Honduran sovereignty," one U.S. official said.