Anti-Sandinista guerrilla leader Eden Pastora, known as Commander Zero, has disappeared and may have been shot down in a helicopter over Nicaragua, an official of his rebel force said today.
Jose Davila, a member of the directorate of the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance, known by its Spanish acronym of ARDE, said guerrilla patrols have been combing the southern Nicaragua jungles for Pastora since the helicopter he was traveling in reported trouble Tuesday.
Pastora, a hero in the Sandinista revolution that unseated the right-wing regime of President Anastasio Somoza in 1979, renounced the Managua government in 1981 in protest of its Marxist leanings and declared guerrilla war against it.
Engine Trouble Reported
The 49-year-old rebel leader had been expected to arrive at his base in Boca de Sarapiqui near the Costa Rican border about 4 p.m. Tuesday but has not been heard from since the pilot of the helicopter reported engine trouble, Davila said.
Davila said there had been prolonged combat between guerrillas and Nicaraguan troops in recent hours and said it is believed that the helicopter, which carried only the guerrilla leader and the pilot, may have been shot down.
But in Managua, Nicaragua, spokesmen for the Defense and Interior ministries said they knew nothing about Pastora's whereabouts.
"It is a new show of the traitor Pastora, with the intention of appearing in the news of the world, on television and in the written press to obtain more money from the CIA," said a Defense Ministry statement.
And a cousin said Pastora is "healthy and safe" in Panama.
Hector Dario Pastora, secretary of an opposition group linked to Eden Pastora's fighting forces, said the helicopter his cousin was traveling in developed engine trouble Tuesday over Nicaragua.
'Healthy and Safe'
He said Pastora then transferred to another helicopter in a town on the southeastern Nicaraguan coast and flew to Panama.
"He is healthy and safe," Hector Dario Pastora said.
It was not immediately possible to contact the ARDE directorate for their reaction to the cousin's statement or to confirm it.
Speculation about a possible crash began with a bulletin in San Jose's La Republica newspaper today saying that Pastora had vanished, and mentioning the possibility of an air accident.
Pastora's organization is one of four rebel groups fighting Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, which celebrated its sixth anniversary in power last Friday.
Pastora's military force, estimated at 2,000 armed fighters and 5,000 others, is considered the second largest of the rebel groups.
Pastora has consistently refused to ally his fighters with the main anti-Sandinista group, the 12,000-strong Nicaraguan Democratic Force, claiming that its leadership is tainted with officers from the Somoza government.
In Washington, White House spokesman Ed Djerejian said the Administration has no information to confirm the reports of Pastora's disappearance but said inquiries are being made.