Blame Sandinistas If Civilians Die in War

The ideological and emotional content of the Nicaraguan debate has not spared the deaths of Ben Linder, a U.S. citizen, and Peter Bertie, a Canadian journalist. Both were convinced of the goodness of their ideas, and both believed from different perspectives that they did what was best for my country. Bertie covered our side of the war--the Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance--for many months. Linder, an engineer, worked with the Sandinistas on government projects. Both died aware of the risks they were exposed to.

Our critics were quick to score propaganda points off Linder's death as they tried to ascribe to us every guilt imaginable, including that he was kidnapped and then executed. Many people accepted these falsehoods as truth, which underscores a broader issue.

It seems that the purpose of many of those opposing the resistance is not the search for truth or freedom in my country. They seem more intent on living out their own ideological fantasies, disregarding any facts inconvenient to their convictions. They willfully ignore the fact that there is a civil war in Nicaragua and that Linder died in a combat zone.

The U.S. press recently reported that 70,000 civilians have been forced out of their traditional lands in central and northern Nicaragua, and that another 10,000 are being forced out in the south. This policy is carried out without regard for their rights, with the justification being the unfounded assumption that the people are collaborators, providing the resistance with shelter and supplies, volunteers and information.

Our critics never ask why the Sandinistas have allowed nationals from Western countries, particularly U.S. citizens, to remain in the war zones, when they have prevented Russians, East Germans and others from remaining in these areas. In the province of Jinotega alone, where Linder and Bertie died, there were 88 clashes reported in the month of April.

The resistance has repeatedly, and as recently as March 24, identified the combat zones and warned civilians of the danger of traveling in military convoys, wearing camouflage or carrying weapons. Since 1984 we have periodically proposed, through the International Red Cross, to subscribe to an agreement with the Sandinista government for the observance of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Protocols. The purpose would be the establishment of neutral zones for the protection of the civilian population, the wounded and the exchange of prisoners.

To these offers the Sandinistas have failed to respond. In their calculations, they can continue to use their control of information and access to the war zones as a propaganda tool. They fuel their propaganda war by blaming the resistance for alleged attacks on the civilian population and their so-called cooperatives or "economic centers." Their war strategy has eliminated any practical difference between a garrison and a cooperative. On March 28 of this year, in Ajapa, Jinotega province, our forces captured a SAM-7 missile, 24 AK-47 rifles, and 36,000 rounds of ammunition. Several Sandinista soldiers died in this combat. However, they call this site a "road construction center."

Is it logical to believe that the Sandinistas build roads with missiles? Is it plausible to believe that the cooperative where Peter Bertie died is an "agricultural center?"

The virtual militarization of the country has converted most of these "cooperatives" and "agricultural centers" into bases of the Sandinista army, whence it sallies forth to rule and intimidate the people. The cooperative of San Bartolo, between Quilali and Wiwili, in northern Nicaragua, is portrayed as an idyllic farm, yet it is capable of garrisoning 800 soldiers.

At this stage of the war, more than 12,000 of our forces are engaged in combat with more than 50,000 Sandinista soldiers, in more than half of the national territory. In the coming months, we will see an intensification of the conflict. In 1986 there were 1,311 engagements; by April 20 of this year, there had already been 815.

The potential for destruction and danger to the population has dramatically increased, as has the need for protection of civilians and assistance to the wounded. An increase in the conflict will also cause a surge in the litany of Sandinista allegations of attacks against civilians by the resistance. As part of this strategy, the Sandinista elite showed up conspicuously at the funeral of Ben Linder, although the Sandinista army regulars who died with him in the combat with our forces were buried in oblivion. This is not surprising. The deaths of those soldiers were not useful for the Sandinista propaganda campaign that tries to portray the resistance as responsible for the death of unprotected civilians.

To give some perspective to the issue and to define the responsibilities of the parties involved in the conflict, the international community, as some countries have already done, should press the Sandinistas to forbid their citizens from remaining in the war zones, and should insist on the implementation of an agreement based on the Geneva Conventions and Protocols. This agreement would provide international supervision for the mutual guarantees to protect civilians and combatants.

In the meantime, we will continue our commitment to observe these provisions unilaterally.

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