President Reagan notified Congress on Tuesday that he is sending $20 million in emergency military aid to Honduras to repel attacks by Nicaraguan government troops on camps and medical facilities housing Nicaraguan rebels.
And in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, a government spokesman announced that the United States has helped fly Honduran soldiers to the border area to turn back the 1,500 Nicaraguan troops who invaded over the weekend.
The degree of the U.S. involvement was uncertain, however, because a Pentagon spokesman, Col. Tom Hamlin, said that “no U.S. helicopters flew today.”
The Associated Press reported from Honduras that about 3,000 Nicaraguan rebels, called contras, are engaged in fierce battles with the Nicaraguan troops, who are operating from nine to 15 miles inside Honduran territory.
The State Department said the top U.S. military officer in Central America, Gen. John R. Galvin, commander in chief of the U.S. Southern Command, has been ordered to Honduras to assess the situation and advise the government.
Honduran President Jose Azcona telephoned Administration officials Monday evening for military assistance, officials in Washington indicated. Reagan approved the request Tuesday morning, signing a presidential declaration to shift the money from existing Pentagon funds under the Foreign Assistance Act. He did not need congressional approval.
The military aid includes U.S. helicopters with pilots to ferry Honduran troops to the front.
However, U.S. spokesmen emphasized that the American assistance was sharply limited. White House spokesman Larry Speakes stressed that U.S. personnel will “not . . . be introduced into combat situations.”
White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan made the same point. After briefing congressional leaders on the Honduran situation, he told reporters that American pilots “will go nowhere near where the Nicaraguan troops are.”
According to the Reagan Administration, Nicaraguan soldiers crossed the border last weekend, 48 hours after the House voted down the President’s $100-million aid request for the contras.
However, Nicaragua on Tuesday denied that its troops were even in Honduras. “The so-called invasion of Nicaraguan troops in Honduras is an invention of the Reagan Administration, a propaganda plan to support aggression against Nicaragua,” said Manuel Espinoza, spokesman for President Daniel Ortega, told the AP by telephone from Managua.
“It is one more lie by the Reagan Administration in its campaign against Nicaragua.”
The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry called reports that Sandinista troops had crossed the border into Honduras “a cheap maneuver that has as its sole objective to obtain $100 million more to continue murdering the Nicaraguan people.”
Officials in Washington of both parties, accepting the Administration’s version of events in Latin America, said that Nicaraguan intervention is expected to turn the tide in Congress in favor of Reagan’s contra aid request.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), an outspoken critic of that aid package, said Ortega had made “a tremendous blunder” in ordering the invasion amid congressional deliberations.
“To me, he’s a blundering, incompetent Marxist, Leninite Communist!” O’Neill declared.
The Senate is expected to vote late today or Thursday on the contra aid package. Reagan had been expected to prevail in the Republican-controlled Senate; now, the Sandinista involvement in Honduras should boost his chances for success in the Democratic-led House, which will reconsider the package next month.
Upset by the turn of events, the House Democratic whip, Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) compared the Sandinista military operation to Ortega’s ill-timed trip to Moscow last year, which prompted the House to reverse an earlier vote and approve $27 million in non-lethal aid for the contras.
“The Nicaraguans have a habit of wishing themselves the most hostile reaction,” Foley said, adding that the events in Honduras will be interpreted as scuttling any possibility of a diplomatic settlement.
Nunn Alienated, Too
“I’d say that Ortega has struck again,” Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) quipped. “He’s one-upped his trip to Moscow.”
Speakes said the Sandinistas were conducting “a large-scale effort to locate and destroy (contra) logistical bases, training centers and medical facilities which they believe to be in the area.”
Another Administration official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified by name, tied the invasion directly to the House vote. He said the congressional delay in approving aid for the contras had defined “a period of uncertainty” in which the Sandinistas would “do their utmost . . . to wound the resistance.”
Since the Nicaraguan soldiers crossed the Honduran border, the contras have reported six deaths and 40 injuries in initial clashes. They also claim to have taken an unspecified number of Sandinista prisoners and inflicted some casualties, Speakes said.
The new clashes were reported to be taking place in a mountainous section of the border region known as the Las Vegas Salient, near the junction of the Coco and Yamal rivers.
Training, Supply Areas
The advance appears aimed at contra training, supply and medical facilities 12 miles inside Honduras, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said. No direct clashes between Honduran and Nicaraguan troops have been reported.
“Both the resistance and Honduran intelligence sources indicate that reinforcing attacks by up to four Sandinista battalions can be expected within the next 24 hours,” Redman said.
Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who has been involved in bipartisan negotiations with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to fashion a compromise aid package for the contras, acknowledged that the President has enough votes for a narrow victory in the Senate. But he said Dole has indicated a willingness to make concessions to give Reagan a bigger margin of victory.
The compromise being discussed by Dole and Sasser would be along the lines of the proposal made last week by Reagan, providing for a 90-day delay in the funding of offensive weapons for the contras while the U.S. pursues a diplomatic solution.