In a dramatic move to end six years of guerrilla war, the Nicaraguan government suspended a state of emergency Saturday and offered for the first time to hold face-to-face peace talks with the U.S.-backed Contras.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced the concessions after a summit meeting at which the four other Central American presidents threatened to censure his Sandinista government for failure to comply with the terms of their regional peace agreement.
Ortega also eased Nicaragua's conditions for freeing an estimated 8,000 political prisoners. He announced that a general amnesty will be instituted if peace talks succeed and disarmed Contra combatants come home, or if countries outside the region accept the newly freed detainees.
The peace accord, signed in Guatemala City last Aug. 7, gave the leaders of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua 150 days to end emergency rule, negotiate cease-fires in all of the region's insurgencies, grant amnesty for political foes and deny aid and sanctuary to insurgent groups fighting against neighboring governments.
With the accord's deadline expired and Congress due to vote early next month on a Reagan Administration request for renewed aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, Ortega tried but failed during the two-day meeting here to win a 30-day extension for meeting Nicaragua's obligations.
Faced with strong objections by El Salvador and Honduras to extending the deadline, Ortega agreed to act immediately to reverse two firmly held Sandinista policies.
First, he agreed to suspend wartime emergency laws that restrict civic freedoms without first having proof that neighboring countries, principally Honduras, have stopped harboring Contras and supply networks in their territories.
The state of emergency--in force most of the time since March, 1982--allowed the government to ban political rallies, hold prisoners incommunicado and try political offenders in special people's tribunals.
Second, Ortega offered to send a Sandinista representative to the Costa Rican capital to meet with rebel peace negotiators as soon as possible, through the mediation of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic primate. The official Contra response was not immediately clear.
Early Peace Talks
Two rounds of Nicaraguan peace talks in the Dominican Republic last month broke down after the Sandinistas insisted on negotiating through foreign officials. That policy was aimed at denying equal status at the bargaining table to the Contras and bolstering the Sandinistas' demand for direct talks with the Reagan Administration to guarantee Nicaragua's security.
Ortega said that he would write a letter to President Reagan calling for a resumption of bilateral security talks that were suspended in 1984.
"Nicaragua is showing a firm willingness to achieve peace," Ortega told a post-summit news conference. "These steps are aimed at stopping the Reagan Administration's illegal war of aggression against our people."
"In the face of this, the Congress should not approve a single dollar of aid to the Contras in any form, humanitarian or otherwise," he added. "A dollar for the Contras is a dollar that will kill the peace agreement."
'If Aggression Doesn't Stop'
The Nicaraguan leader made it clear he would reimpose the state of emergency if new Contra aid is approved. "If peace doesn't come, if the aggression doesn't stop, we will be obligated to take the corresponding measures to protect our nation," he said.
Ortega's announcements won guarded praise from other Central American leaders, who issued a final summit statement calling for immediate compliance with all of the unfulfilled commitments of the peace accord.
"This was the zero hour," said President Jose Napoleon Duarte of El Salvador. "Ortega told us he will talk directly with the Contras, something he said he would not do before, but . . . he says he will do it now, and that is a welcome step."
Because of opposition by El Salvador and Honduras, the final document did not call specifically for a cutoff of U.S. aid to the Contras. Nor did it single out any country for failing to live up to the accord.
Architect of Plan
President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica, the architect of the peace plan, said that he was "not totally satisfied" with the record of compliance so far by Nicaragua or any other country. He noted there is not full freedom of the press in Nicaragua and that talks to end guerrilla struggles in El Salvador and Guatemala have broken off.
President Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo of Guatemala came the closest to seconding Ortega's call for stopping U.S. aid to the Contras. He said he could not predict how Congress will vote. "The United States has a responsibility to respect these accords," he said. "If we fulfill what we have agreed to, we can stop those who are interfering in Central America."
There was no indication when the next round of Nicaraguan peace talks would take place.
Earlier last week, the Contras proposed including leaders of Nicaragua's internal political opposition in the talks.
But the Sandinistas rejected the proposal and arrested some opposition political leaders who had met last week with Contra representatives in Guatemala.
The Interior Ministry confirmed the arrests of Alberto Saborio, 50, president of the Nicaraguan Bar Assn., and Mario Rappaccioli, 59, vice president of the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinate, the nation's main opposition group. Other sources said Julio Icaza Tijerino, 68, a lawyer and a member of the Conservative Party, and Duilio Baltodano of the Social Christian Party also were detained.
The Nicaraguan Interior Ministry announced the arrests over charges of involvement in a "terrorist conspiracy."
Bosco Matamoros, a Contra spokesman, called Ortega's offer of cease-fire talks a "tactical concession" to influence the U.S. congressional vote on Contra aid and said the arrest of the opposition leaders "shows that the minimum conditions necessary to resume the talks do not exist."
Ortega defended the arrests, saying the political leaders had "crossed the line from acceptable civic opposition to collaboration with armed opposition."
Indian Rebel Offer
In a separate peace offer, Ortega invited Indian rebel leaders from his country's Atlantic coastal region to hold cease-fire talks inside Nicaragua. He made the offer in a breakfast meeting Friday with Brooklyn Rivera, chief of one of the five Indian rebel factions, which claim to represent 2,400 guerrillas and have loose ties to the main Contra movement.
The summit marked the end of the first phase of the internationally celebrated peace accord, which brought Arias last year's Nobel Peace Prize.
The leaders' joint declaration called for a new phase of the peace accord, in which compliance will be verified through inspections of each country. It said this was needed to assure fair elections in each country and the shutdown of guerrilla sanctuaries.
Ortega said that Nicaragua puts high priority on inspections to control Contra activity in Honduras and El Salvador.
Under the peace accord, inspections were to be organized by a commission made up of the five Central American nations, the eight Latin American countries of the so-called Contadora Group and its support group, the Organization of American States and the United Nations.
Honduras and El Salvador, calling the Contadora Group biased toward Nicaragua, insisted that the five Central American nations themselves take control of inspections. The final declaration supported their position but said that the region's foreign ministers could invite countries or organizations "of recognized impartiality" to join the inspection teams.
But Duarte said he opposed inspection of either country's territory. "I told Ortega I'm not going to let my territory be used (by the Contras) but I ask for reciprocity. Let us live in peace. To have inspectors come in, this is an insult. This implies that we, the Central American presidents, are liars. I don't think we are liars."