With fresh training and new boots, Nicaragua's anti-Sandinista guerrillas are recovering from a bleak period of weakness, frustration and failure, their top military commander said Tuesday.
The contras' leader, Enrique Bermudez, said in an interview that what his forces need now is increased firepower. He predicted that if Congress votes today to approve U.S. military aid for the rebels, they will be able to use the aid to neutralize the Soviet-supplied helicopters that have become the Sandinista army's most potent weapon.
"They will not be able to use their helicopters, or if they use them, it will be at great risk," Bermudez said. "That cuts their capability. It also affects the morale of their forces."
The MI-8 and MI-24 armored assault helicopters, in use for the last year, have given the Sandinistas decisive advantages in rapid deployment and firepower. As a result, the contras action has been limited largely to small, hit-and-run attacks.
The contras say they have used Soviet-designed SAM-7 missiles, bought last year on the black market, to down three Sandinista helicopters. But other SAM-7s failed to function in Nicaragua's hot, humid climate, rebel leaders say.
Bermudez, military leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest rebel army, said U.S. military aid would permit the contras to obtain an arsenal of simpler but more reliable missiles, such as the U.S.-made Stinger. He said the contras also need other heavy weaponry such as machine guns, artillery, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
If they receive such aid, he said, "we are going to strike more spectacular blows. This will have impact among the people."
He said the guerrillas would launch attacks in provincial cities and interdict major highways.
Another contras leader, Indalecio Rodriguez, predicted in a separate interview that increased firepower with heavier weaponry will permit the contras to seize towns and hold them for several days, something they have never done.
"You will see how the history of Nicaragua will change the day that we can do that," said Rodriguez. Both Rodriguez and Bermudez said that such action would help encourage popular resistance to the Marxist-led Sandinistas and give the contras' campaign added momentum.
Bermudez, a stocky man with curly black hair and bushy eyebrows, spoke in a house near Tegucigalpa that is used as a rebel office. The main contras camps are more than 100 miles east of this city, near the Nicaraguan border.
70% in Nicaragua
Bermudez said that about 70% of the 17,000 fighting men under his command are currently in Nicaragua. At the beginning of this year, most of the contras were in Honduras awaiting boots and other supplies.
U.S. military aid to the contras, once supplied through the CIA, was cut off by Congress in 1984. Although the contras survived with help from other sources, Bermudez said the aid drought wilted the guerrilla organization.
"We reached a point where our forces had to abandon their presence in certain areas because of a lack of supplies," he said. "Seventy percent of our forces were paralyzed."
The Sandinistas took advantage of the contras' weakness to strengthen their own control, evacuating civilians from some remote areas in efforts to deny the guerrillas any support.
Food for Guerrillas
A year ago, Congress approved $27 million in non-military aid, including food, medicine, uniforms and boots. Food bought in Honduras with the aid money kept encamped guerrillas from going hungry, but Honduran authorities temporarily blocked other supplies brought from the United States.
Bermudez said no boots reached his troops until March. Since then, he said, his fighters have poured back into Nicaragua, and many of them are freshly trained.
A contras military training center established last September has graduated nearly 7,000 guerrillas from six-week courses, Bermudez said. Some of the graduates were new recruits, but most had previous combat experience.
As a result of the training, Bermudez said, the combat readiness of the troops is "tremendously" better.
"It has improved radically, let's say 100%," he said.
Still, he added, the contras hope that new U.S. aid will include military training.
"We need it," he said. "For example, who will train us to use the missiles?"
If Congress does not approve the aid, he said, "we will have to adapt our strategy to the situation."
He said all of the $27 million approved last year has been spent, and the supplies will begin running low in the coming weeks. Without new boots, the guerrillas' momentum will decline.
Bermudez said his forces currently are involved in as many as 150 skirmishes a month, but without new aid, the level of engagement could drop to as low as 20 clashes a month.