The U.S. Army ferried 1,000 American and Honduran troops to a dusty airstrip for emergency maneuvers Sunday in a show of military muscle 15 miles from the Nicaraguan border.
The soldiers and artillery were deployed here at the U.S.-built Jamastran airstrip, less than 100 miles west of the Nicaraguan border zone that Honduran warplanes bombed Saturday. That attack was the second Honduran air force raid on Nicaragua's frontier zone since Managua's Sandinista soldiers crossed the border last week during an offensive against the Contras and their base camps inside Honduras.
Combat between the U.S.-backed rebels and the Nicaraguan army ceased on Thursday, according to Contra sources, and the Sandinistas reportedly have been withdrawing from Honduran territory since Saturday.
The battle area near San Andres de Bocay, a remote town on the Nicaraguan side of the frontier, is impossible to reach by road from either Nicaragua or Honduras, and information about the action has been sketchy. The Sandinistas said their offensive ended Wednesday.
In Washington, U.S. officials confirmed that Nicaraguan troops were retreating from the border area and said they were leaving land mines in their wake in an effort to staunch the passage of Contras into Nicaragua. Interviewed on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, President Reagan's national security adviser, said: "The battle is pretty much over."
After the Nicaraguan incursion, Reagan ordered 3,150 U.S. troops to Honduras for what was described as an "emergency deployment readiness exercise." Dubbed Operation Golden Pheasant, the undertaking amounts to a series of previously unplanned exercises with the Honduran armed forces. Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci has said that the operation is expected to last 10 days.
'Getting Back to Normal'
In an interview here Sunday, Honduran President Jose Azcona Hoyo said that the American troops probably wouldn't be needed much longer because of the Nicaraguan retreat.
"Things are getting back to normal," Azcona said. "If there are no more incidents, the Americans will leave."
The president declined to give details on the Sandinista pullback or be more specific on exactly when the U.S. troops would depart.
A member of a congressional delegation visiting Honduras, Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said he expects the Americans to pull out in about a week.
U.S. CH-47 Chinook helicopters flew 300 Honduran troops to Jamastran on Sunday morning, while C-130 transport planes raised clouds of red dust as they brought in 700 American soldiers, most of them from the 3rd Battalion of the 27th Infantry of the 7th Light Infantry Division from Ft. Ord, Calif. The soldiers unloaded three 105-millimeter howitzers among the cargo on UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters.
The American troops poured out of the aircraft wearing camouflage paint and combat fatigues and hiked into the sagebrush in columns carrying M-16 automatic rifles and field radios on their backs.
"The message here is that we can deploy quickly with no notice and demonstrate our support to the Honduran government in the wake of an incursion," said Lt. Col. Rich Rinaldo, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which is headquartered in Panama.
Uncertainty Among Troops
Despite blustery phrases from officials about a show of force to the Sandinistas, many of the American soldiers were uncertain why they had been brought to Honduras.
"It's something about the Contras on the border screwing around," Army cook Robert Turner Jr., 24, of Killeen, Tex., said as he marched off with a column.
Staff Sgt. Michael Sanderford, 25, a veteran of the U.S. invasion of Grenada five years ago, said he knew from the minute he boarded the plane for Honduras at Ft. Bragg, N.C., that he wasn't headed for combat.
"When we went to Grenada, they issued us live ammo, but not this time," Sanderford said. "I hope we get a little spare time to catch some tan before we go back."
Sgt. Ron Farnsworth, 24, of Racine, Wis., also was not concerned about holding exercises this close to the Nicaraguan border.
"If anything was going to happen it would already have happened," Farnsworth said as he handed out his field rations--barbecued beef and chocolate--to a group of admiring Honduran boys.
Poverty Seen in Children
"About the worst thing we've seen down here are these kids in the run-down clothes. You read about it, but when you see them with no shoes, you wish it weren't true," he said.
Asked what he thought of the cutoff of U.S. aid to the Contras, Farnsworth said, "I never thought about it, but I look at these guys and think if it was going to these children, it would be a different story."
U.S. aid to the Contras ran out Feb. 29, and Congress has rejected further military and other assistance for the rebels. The Senate has proposed a new $48-million aid package, however, and opposition politicians in Honduras charge that the current exercises and Honduras' bombing raids on Sandinista positions have been undertaken as propaganda aimed at winning that assistance.
Reagan Administration officials in Washington on Sunday played down the significance of the latest U.S.-Honduran military moves, distinguishing them from past maneuvers in which U.S. pilots transported Honduran soldiers to a staging zone not far from actual fighting with Sandinista intruders.
"This is simply combined exercise training at Jamastran," Pentagon spokeswoman Capt. Nancy LaLuntas said, emphasizing that the training site is far from the San Andres de Bocay region, site of the Sandinistas' reported incursion.
LaLuntas added that the exercise near the Nicaraguan border came at the request of the Honduran government, which proposed it "as part of the overall scenario for Exercise Golden Pheasant."
But Sunday's Jamastran maneuvers are the closest U.S. troops have come to the Nicaraguan border since December, 1986, when Washington sent American helicopters and pilots to ferry Honduran troops to this same spot, in El Paraiso province. From here, the Honduran soldiers went on to repel a Sandinista incursion.
Restriction Does Not Apply
In a fiscal 1987 funding bill, Congress prohibited U.S. government personnel from approaching within 20 miles of the Nicaraguan border in support of the Contras. But Administration officials contended last week that the restriction does not apply to U.S.-Honduran training exercises, such as those now under way.
The Jamastran airstrip, built by U.S. and Honduran troops during previous joint exercises, sits at the end of a dirt road in rocky flatlands that are farmed by poor peasants.
As dark helicopters flew overhead like buzzards Sunday, farmers rode the two-lane highway to Jamastran in ox carts and on horseback. The area is speckled with shacks, Pepsi-Cola stands and billboards advertising insecticides.
A nearby soccer game drew a larger crowd of spectators than the military exercises, but a few groups of curious boys huddled around the strapping American soldiers.
"They are taking care of us," said 15-year-old Jose Ordonez. "The radio says the Sandinistas are bad people."
Ordonez, a farmer, also had few good things to say about the Contras. "The Contras, sometimes they don't even want to fight. The radio says they are going to come to Honduras to kill people if the U.S. doesn't give them more money."
During the first day of exercises at Jamastran, one soldier took a spill on a motorcycle and was slightly injured, and one C-130 transport plane suffered a flat tire.
The soldiers here are practicing small-unit tactics, patrolling, land navigation and "possibly some mountaineering," according to spokesman Rinaldo.
Another battalion from the 7th Light Infantry Division has been deployed to San Lorenzo on the Gulf of Fonseca. Most of the troops from the 82nd Airborne Division have been deployed to Juticalpa, about 90 miles northwest of San Andres de Bocay, and to Tamara, northwest of the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Times staff writer Melissa Healy contributed to this story from Washington.