Nicaraguan rebels cast aside their guerrilla tactics to fight a bloody conventional battle with Sandinista government troops in Honduran territory last week, and it may have been a mistake for the rebels, military sources reported Monday.
Six days of fierce combat ended in a standoff and left total casualties on both sides of 70 dead and 350 wounded, the sources said.
They said the battle involved up to 1,000 men on each side, and Sandinista troops were backed by Soviet-supplied transport helicopters and heavy artillery. Congress recently authorized $100 million in military and other aid to the rebels, known as contras , but there was no sign that any of that assistance has yet reached the contras here.
The military sources said that, in retrospect, the rebels seriously erred by engaging in such a battle. Although casualty figures appeared to favor the contras, the rebels, with fewer troops in the field than the Sandinista army, are less able to absorb losses.
"They found themselves involved in what was conventional warfare, where they were fighting to gain and maintain terrain, and that obviously is not their purpose," one source said. "They are not armed, equipped or trained to fight a conventional-type battle."
The fighting was the heaviest in Honduran territory since March, when Sandinista troops attacked contras camps about 100 miles east of Tegucigalpa. The rebel camps are several miles northeast of where last week's fighting took place.
Reports on the latest battle have been sketchy and confused. Honduran, Nicaraguan and contras officials have not openly acknowledged that the fighting was in Honduras.
On Monday, however, reliable military sources offered American reporters what appeared to be the most comprehensive and coherent report yet to emerge on the fighting. The sources, who asked not to be further identified, gave this account:
On Oct. 24, a force of about 200 contras attacked about 100 Sandinista troops who were patrolling inside Honduran territory near the village of Subico, in eastern Paraiso province. The contras chased the Sandinistas across the border into Nicaragua.
The next day, after shelling the Subico area, the Sandinistas moved back in. Then, reinforced contras pushed them out again. Meanwhile, more fighting began at a place called La Suba, about 15 miles south of Subico. La Suba is near the tip of a "parrot's beak" of Honduran territory that pokes south into Nicaragua.
The fighting escalated until each side had as many as 1,000 troops engaged.
"It was not supposed to happen like this," said one source. "It was not supposed to turn into a 2,000-man battle."
Contras' Casualties Lighter
The fact that the fighting was in Honduran territory was not to the contras' advantage, the source said. "They don't want to fight the war in Honduran territory," he said. "They want to fight it in Nicaragua."
The contras reportedly lost fewer fighters than the Sandinistas. The military sources estimated contra casualties at 20 killed and 100 wounded, compared to 50 killed and 250 wounded for the Sandinistas.
President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has said that 80 contras were killed and 120 wounded in fighting through last Wednesday. He gave Sandinista casualties as 21 dead and 16 wounded.
Adelita Ycaza, a spokeswoman for the contras in Tegucigalpa, said Monday that she had no figures for rebel casualties but that 51 Sandinistas were killed and 302 wounded.
She said 16 of the Sandinista troops died when the contras shot down an MI-17 transport helicopter. The Sandinista government said the chopper crashed last Thursday because of bad weather, killing 21 people aboard.
The Sandinistas used the Soviet-made helicopters in the battle to ferry troops, resupply them and evacuate the wounded, according to the military sources in Tegucigalpa. They said the MI-17 that went down apparently was hit on the Honduran side of the border but crashed on the Nicaraguan side.
The sources said the battle ended last Thursday after the contras realized the error of engaging in conventional warfare and pulled out. They said Sandinista forces of perhaps 100 men each had remained in the Subico and La Suba areas of Honduras.
Other sources have reported continued fighting over the weekend. Ycaza, the contras spokeswoman, said the fighting ended after the Sandinista forces retreated Saturday and Sunday.
"We forced them to pull back," Ycaza said. She said the fighting took place in Nicaragua's northern Jinotega province, not in Honduran territory.
In deference to Honduran sensitivities, contras officials usually deny publicly that their main bases are in Honduran territory. Their presence is awkward for the Honduran government because it maintains diplomatic relations with the Sandinista government.
Because of the contras presence, Sandinista military incursions into Honduran territory have been frequent. One military source hinted Monday that the Hondurans may have asked the contras to eject Sandinista troops from Honduras and that is how the latest fighting began.
The source said the contras pulled out of the fighting Thursday after being advised to do so. Although no source said the advice came from the CIA, the agency has been legally authorized to aid and advise the contras since late October. A congressional ban on CIA assistance ended when President Reagan signed a bill giving the rebels $100 million in U.S. aid.