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Contras Hurt by Honduran Base Closures

Times Staff Writer

The Honduran army’s closure of the main bases used by Nicaraguan rebels has severely hampered the guerrillas’ operations in northern Nicaragua, U.S. officials said Friday.

Three weeks after the Hondurans ordered the anti-Sandinista rebels to evacuate the bases along their southern border with Nicaragua, the contras’ ability to move men and supplies across the frontier remains restricted, according to officials with access to U.S. intelligence reports on the area.

“It’s made things more difficult. It’s disrupted their operations,” said a State Department official who asked not to be identified.

Envoy’s Interview

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In a newspaper interview earlier this week, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, John D. Negroponte, estimated that the contras have reduced their strength inside Nicaragua by almost half. Negroponte said that the largest contra group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, had “90-95%" of its 15,000 guerrillas in the field a month ago, while “today they have about 50%.”

The Hondurans closed the contras’ main base at Las Vegas and two smaller camps in mid-May after the Nicaraguan army shelled the area and sent an estimated 200 troops across the border in pursuit of the rebels.

At first, U.S. officials said they hoped the Honduran move was only temporary and aimed primarily at protecting the contras. But in the weeks since the camp closures, the Hondurans have maintained tight restrictions on movements of rebel troops and supplies, they said.

“They’re keeping them on a short leash, and I would be, too, if I were in their position,” the official said. “They don’t want another cross-border raid.”

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Small-Group Operations

Despite the problems, another official said, the contras appear to be waging successful small-group guerrilla operations in central Nicaragua. He said the rebels’ attacks have forced the Sandinista government to deploy troops to guard electric generating plants and other strategic targets.

“There have been no big actions, just enough to keep the Sandinistas busy,” he said. Miskito Indian rebels have also been more active in eastern Nicaragua, he said.

He added that the Honduran action has forced the contras to rely on expensive air resupply of their remaining forces inside Nicaragua.

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“Eventually, they plan to do more infiltration, but right now they’re using air, and they don’t seem to be having any trouble with it,” he said. “It’s a question of how many drops you can do with a Cessna.”

U.S.-Built Airstrips

In the past, the contras have flown supply planes from several airstrips built by U.S. forces in southern Honduras. The officials refused to say whether those airstrips, which are under Honduran control, are being used for the current supply operations.

Both the Honduran and Nicaraguan authorities have barred reporters from the areas of combat.

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Negroponte and other U.S. officials have blamed Congress’ refusal to renew aid to the contras for Honduras’ action, saying the Honduran army cracked down on the contras because it has little confidence that the Reagan Administration will be able to fund the force. House Democrats blocked an Administration request for $14 million in aid to the contras in April, but the issue is scheduled to come up in the Senate again next week.


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