Leftist guerrillas assaulted an army base and a cotton farming cooperative in Usulutan in a series of attacks Wednesday that left at least 17 people dead, including seven civilians in a house leveled by mortar fire.
Salvadoran army officials said another 13 soldiers and a civilian were wounded during 2 1/2 hours of fighting at the army’s 6th Infantry Brigade in this town, capital of the eastern province of Usulutan. Two U.S. military advisers at the base during the attack were not injured.
Guerrillas from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front also destroyed two bridges and five power poles and damaged a cotton-seed oil factory near Usulutan, about 70 miles east of San Salvador, the nation’s capital. At the same time, the rebels launched minor attacks on military positions in five other provinces.
The rebel offensive came as foreign ministers from five Central American nations, including El Salvador, gathered in San Salvador to set up a commission to verify their governments’ compliance with a regional peace accord signed by their presidents last August.
Gen. Adolfo Blandon, head of the Salvadoran joint chiefs of staff, flew to the Usulutan garrison to review the damage and called the assault a failure because the rebels did not penetrate the installation.
The damage and casualties were far less than in last year’s rebel assault on the 4th Infantry Brigade at El Paraiso in the northern province of Chalatenango. A U.S. adviser, Staff Sgt. Gregory A. Fronius of Greensburg, Pa., died in the March 31 attack, and the Salvadoran army suffered about 200 casualties.
Five weeks later, guerrillas attacked the base of the 4th Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, the capital of eastern Morazan province. An estimated 18 people were killed in that attack.
Like the base in San Francisco Gotera, the Usulutan garrison is in the center of a densely populated town and thus is a more difficult target than the El Paraiso base.
A half-dozen houses across a dirt road from the garrison here were heavily damaged, apparently by rebel mortars that fell short of their mark. An unidentified family, including four children, died in one of the houses, according to military and civilian sources.
Lt. Rene Armando Brenes of the 6th Brigade said the attack began shortly after midnight. He said the rebels attacked the heavily guarded garrison from three directions.
The guerrillas used machine guns, grenades and mortars, Brenes said. He attributed the relatively light damage to the fact that the army had some warning. Shortly before the attack, five guerrillas were detected less than a mile north of the garrison. The army began to prepare for action and the air force sent aircraft aloft to light the area with flares.
Gen. Blandon said six soldiers, seven civilians and two guerrillas died in the attack. The local funeral parlor said it had the bodies of a seventh soldier and a police officer.
Reporting on the six-province offensive, the rebels’ clandestine Radio Venceremos claimed the guerrillas caused 190 army casualties, captured “abundant war material,” destroyed 70 power poles and a substation, and occupied villages in San Miguel and Morazan provinces. They also attacked military targets in Chalatenango, Cuscatlan and Cabanas provinces.
The rebels said the offensive was called “Armed Struggle and Combative Action Against the Electoral Farce.” Municipal and National Assembly elections are scheduled for March 20.