With $100 million in U.S. aid soon to come their way, the rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government have sketched out an ambitious new timetable for war that they say will give them a decisive upper hand in the conflict within a year.
Most of the rebels, known as contras , are inactive now, holed up in camps in Honduran territory. Their spokesmen admit that they are unable to maintain a permanent military presence anywhere in Nicaragua.
“Our forces desperately await the arrival of the first shipments of American aid,” said a recent broadcast by the contras’ clandestine radio station.
The bill providing the $100 million in aid is stalled in the House and probably will not be approved until right before Congress adjourns in early October. The money will begin to flow soon after President Reagan signs the bill.
The contras’ new timetable calls for full activation of rebel troops and an active presence in three-fourths of Nicaragua by the end of 1986. Then, according to the plan, contras’ troop strength will begin increasing by 1,000 to 1,500 men a month. Rebel spokesmen say that with the aid, the growing guerrilla movement will be better armed and trained than ever.
Indalecio Rodriguez, a senior leader of the contras, said that by mid-1987, “we will be at our best level of effectiveness, activity and fighting capacity.” He predicted that by October, 1987, unprecedented pressure from the guerrillas will force the Marxist-led Sandinista government either to negotiate for peace or to watch its power crumble away.
Some analysts say the contras are daydreaming.
“They don’t have the capability of defeating the Sandinista army,” one Honduran official said. “We believe that with the $100 million, nothing will be accomplished.”
The official expressed no hope for ridding Honduras of the contra presence, which he said compromises this country’s position under international law and jeopardizes Honduran-Nicaraguan peace.
“What is going to happen is that the contras are going to move into Nicaragua, and then they are going to come back out, compromising us even more,” he said. “We are unable to foresee a solution, either negotiated or military.”
Another source who is well informed about the contras’ problems said the rebels will be under pressure to begin making a strong showing on the battlefield within six months of receiving the $100 million.
“They are working against a deadline,” the source said. “If they can’t turn political and military support from the United States into success, then that support means nothing.”
He predicted that if the contras do not show significant success within six months, they will lose their morale and Honduras “will start getting very concerned.”
The source said the Honduran army might then begin to harass contras in Honduras, detaining their leaders, raiding their installations and taking other action against them.
He contended that the contras have grown “fat and lazy” this year because $27 million in “humanitarian aid” from the United States has provided them with food in their Honduran camps but no weapons or ammunition to fight with. The $27 million, approved by Congress last year, has run out in recent weeks, and analysts here say that even more contras have pulled back from Nicaragua because of supply shortages.
Honduras is the main base for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, known by the Spanish initials FDN, which is by far the largest contra contingent. Rodriguez, one of the FDN’s seven directors, said in an interview that only about 40% of that guerrilla organization’s troops are currently active.
Resupplied by Year-End
He said the FDN’s total troop strength, active and inactive, is 18,000 men, but other sources estimate it to be as low as 10,000. Other groups, including Indian guerrillas along the Caribbean coast, are believed to field a total of 2,000 to 3,000 more fighters.
According to Rodriguez, all contra forces will be resupplied and fully active by the end of this year, thanks to the new U.S. aid.
“This year we are going to be equipping the people we have and training the people we have,” he said.
The package will provide $70 million in military supplies and training, and $30 million in other aid.
U.S. officials say they hope that the training will meet what they say are critical contra needs for better-prepared unit commanders and combat specialists. U.S. training for the contras now is prohibited by law.
Rodriguez said training under the new aid package will include courses on the use of shoulder-held missiles and other support weapons. Among support weapons to be supplied in the aid, he said, will be rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars, light artillery and shoulder-held ground-to-air missiles.
Getting Two-Way Radios
The contras say they must have the missiles to contend with the Sandinistas’ formidable fleet of Soviet-made battle helicopters and the cannon to defend against widespread Sandinista use of heavy artillery. The contras’ goal is to have one support weapon for each 20 men.
They also expect to receive a big supply of portable two-way radios with message-scrambling mechanisms to improve battlefield communications. Currently, the FDN has only one field radio for each 300 to 400 men, Rodriguez said.
He said a large part of the new military equipment should be in hand by the end of the year.
The contras also want more helicopters and planes. Currently, they are known to have two small Hughes 500 helicopters, used mostly for evacuating wounded and transporting commanders, a propeller-driven C-47 transport plane for carrying supplies and a few light airplanes.
Frank Arana, an FDN spokesman in Tegucigalpa, said the ideal plane for logistics would be a C-130 Hercules. And, Arana said, the rebels expect to get more and bigger helicopters for evacuation and logistics operations.
Move Into Nicaragua
A contra source said some FDN members currently are being trained in the United States as helicopter pilots. A U.S. Embassy spokesman said, “They are not being trained with U.S. government funds or by U.S. forces because it is prohibited by law.”
The contra source also said that hundreds of FDN members have been trained as paratroopers by U.S. military personnel in Honduras this year, but the embassy spokesman denied that “categorically.”
Arana said that as equipment and supplies become available, rebel forces will simultaneously be spreading out and taking root in Nicaraguan territory. By the beginning of 1987, he said, “we intend to have an active and permanent military presence in 75% of the national territory, with 100% of our troops in action.”
It will be the first time in five years of warfare that the contras will have the means to maintain all of their forces in the field, he said.
Currently, border-based contras operate widely in Nicaragua’s remote back lands but, Arana admitted, “we don’t have a permanent presence anywhere.”
Bigger Actions Planned
Arana and Rodriguez said in separate interviews that beginning early in 1987, rebel troop strength will grow at a rate of 1,000 to 1,500 men a year. With the growth of other groups, they said, total contra strength will reach 30,000 men or more, perhaps as early as mid-1987.
While the forces grow, the two spokesmen said, so will the scope of their action.
For the past year, the contra attacks have been limited mostly to small-scale ambushes, hit-and-run strikes and other harassing tactics. Their new plans include invading towns, cutting highways and other major action on an increasing scale.