U.S. and Honduran troops began their latest round of joint military maneuvers Saturday in this country’s tense southern border region not far from the scene of recent fighting between Nicaraguan troops and anti-Sandinista rebels.
About 220 soldiers from the 27th Engineers Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 20th Combat Airborne Force based at Ft. Bragg, N.C., parachuted from C-141 transport airplanes for an exercise that will upgrade the U.S.-built Jamastran airstrip, 17 miles from the Nicaraguan border and about 70 miles east of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
Ultimately 1,100 U.S. troops will take part in the exercises, dubbed “Big Pine ’87,” which began last month and will run through mid-April. The troops will upgrade another U.S.-built airstrip at San Lorenzo, southeast of here in the province of Choluteca, and the nearby Punto Raton causeway into the Gulf of Fonseca.
Upgrading Airstrips, Roads
The troops will also make improvements on a longer paved airstrip at Palmerola, headquarters for the joint Task Force Bravo command, which oversees the maneuvers. U.S. and Honduran troops are engaged in a simultaneous exercise in northern Honduras called “Blazing Trails,” in which about 4,500 U.S. Army reservists and National Guardsmen, arriving in rotations of about 600, will construct three miles of road in the northern province of Yoro.
Jamastran is one of nine U.S.-built or improved airfields throughout Honduras. Most of the work on the airfield was done during previous phases of the nearly continuous series of joint exercises that began in 1983 to upgrade Honduras’ strategic military capability and to train U.S. troops in tropical conditions. Two radar facilities also have been installed during exercises or under U.S. aid programs.
U.S. officials have stressed that the airstrips and roads are temporary, for use during the military training exercises, but several have been upgraded repeatedly during exercises and remain in use.
U.S. officials also say the infrastructure built for maneuvers has nothing to do with the U.S. program to aid the contras, who are fighting to oust the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Soldiers participating in the maneuvers, therefore, are exempt from U.S. legislation--granting $100 million in military and other aid to the contras--that bars U.S. advisers from coming within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border. The Jamastran field is closer than that to the border.
Key to Resupply Network
“We’re not doing anything with the contras,” said Maj. William Van Horn, one of the commanders of the engineering operations. “We’re here to upgrade the airfield.”
But sources familiar with contra operations said that Palmerola and another Honduran air base at Aguacate are key to the contras’ resupply network and are being used to receive and send supplies bought with the $100-million aid package signed last October. Flight records recovered from a U.S.-piloted contras supply plane shot down in Nicaragua in October showed that the Aguacate base and an airstrip at Mocoron have also been used in resupply operations.
The 4,600-foot Jamastran airstrip, adequate for landing a C-130 transport plane, and a similar U.S.-improved airstrip at Puerto Lempira also are believed to have been used by the contras.
Last month, Jamastran was used as a forward staging area for 700 Honduran troops, who were ferried in by U.S.-piloted helicopters after Sandinista troops launched a large-scale attack on the contras inside Honduras.
In that attack, Sandinista troops also overran Honduran army outposts along the border near Las Trojes. The Honduran air force retaliated by bombing Sandinista positions near the village of Wiwili in a remote area of northern Nicaragua, killing seven soldiers and wounding two children.
Before the December flare-up--the third in 10 months--Sandinista troops had been operating freely inside Honduras in an area called the Las Vegas Salient, where the contras have maintained base camps for the last five years.
In late December, the Nicaraguan government staged its own military maneuvers near the Honduran border in the province of Chinandega in northwest Nicaragua. In that three-day exercise, 6,500 troops with tank and helicopter support conducted a mock war.
Danilo Abud Vivas, Nicaragua’s ambassador to Honduras, charged in a local newspaper interview that the latest round of joint maneuvers in Honduras added to increased tensions between the two countries because of the presence of U.S. soldiers near the border.
Maneuvers Called Necessary
“If Honduras wanted to have maneuvers one kilometer from the Nicaraguan border by themselves, we would not have anything to worry about. We are sure the armed forces and the president (of Honduras) are not going to war with Nicaragua,” Abud Vivas said. “The problem is when the armed forces of a country that is making undeclared war enters (the maneuvers).”
U.S. Embassy spokesman Arthur Skop said the maneuvers were necessary to send a message of support to Honduras and as a warning to the Sandinistas.
“The Sandinista government and their expansionist policies is the most important threat in the region,” Skop said.
A Honduran army official said about three battalions or approximately 2,100 Honduran soldiers would participate in the exercises. The Hondurans pay for the cost of materials used in the exercises and for their own troops.
The United States pays for U.S. troops and equipment used in the maneuvers, but the money does not come out of U.S. military aid funds for Honduras, which totaled about $81 million last year. Honduras has been allotted $61 million so far this year, but a supplemental military aid request has been made, Skop said.
Honduran political observers said there is minimal opposition in the country to the maneuvers, although anti-U.S. graffiti can be seen in the capital.
“No one opposes the training of Honduran troops, but they do oppose the permanent presence of U.S. troops,” a member of the ruling Liberal Party said. “Some people feel that if the Americans are going to stay, they should open a base and pay for it.”
About 1,200 U.S. troops are permanently based in Honduras.