The United Nations said Friday that it will host two days of peace talks beginning Monday between Nicaragua's Sandinista government and the Contras in an effort to defuse the sudden escalation of hostilities.
But a spokesman for the government of President Daniel Ortega warned that the Sandinistas will participate in the talks only if the agenda is limited to demobilization and resettlement of the rebels.
A U.N. spokesman said that both sides had accepted the invitation "in principle." But the Sandinistas' insistence on a restricted agenda led some observers to fear that the Contras will protest and call for wider discussions, undermining the prospects for peace.
The United Nations said that the talks were scheduled because of the "increase in tension which has occurred in Central America" since Ortega suspended a 19-month cease-fire Wednesday and launched new military offensives against the Contras.
In Managua, wire services reported that Nicaraguan troops were airlifted into remote mountains and jungles in an offensive against the Contras, some of whom were said to be retreating into Honduras.
Defense Ministry sources said the army attacked in eight provinces where an estimated 3,000 guerrillas were holed up in small bands. There was no information on casualties in the fighting. A Contra source in Costa Rica said that the guerrillas who choose to stay in Nicaragua are under orders to take refuge in inaccessible areas, news agencies said.
The invitation to the peace talks at the United Nations was extended by the International Commission for Verification and Support, a two-member group consisting of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and Organization of American States Secretary General Joao Baene Soares. Both men are expected to preside at the opening session.
Darryl Hunt, a New York representative of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry, said that Deputy Foreign Minister Victor Hugo Tinoco will head the government delegation.
Other Sandinista officials will include Maj. Gen. Joaquin Cuadra, army chief of staff; Reynaldo Antonio Tefel, minister-director of the Institute of Social Security and Welfare, and Paul Reichler, a U.S. lawyer who has represented Nicaragua in international forums.
The composition of the delegation indicates that the Sandinistas expect the talks to be technical, Hunt said, noting that Nicaragua had requested the sessions.
"This meeting was convoked by Nicaragua in conjunction with the U.N. and the OAS," Hunt said. "And we want the agenda limited to three subjects: demobilization, relocation and repatriation (of the Contras)."
Under a peace agreement signed by Ortega and four other Central American presidents in August, the Contras are to disband and relocate by early December, in advance of a presidential election scheduled for Feb. 25. But the rebel leaders never agreed to the demobilization plan.
The composition of the Contra delegation is not known, but a U.N. official who requested anonymity said that he expects the group to include Enrique Bermudez, military commander of the guerrilla force. The official said that his communications with the Contras have been exclusively through Bermudez.
There were unconfirmed reports that the Contras want to include Nicaragua's Catholic Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, as an observer at the talks. He previously served as a mediator between the government and the resistance movement.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, traveling with President Bush, hailed the announcement of the talks as a "positive sign" in the Nicaraguan situation.
"We'd like to see these positive steps lead to a reinstatement of the cease-fire and create the climate for democracy and repatriation," Fitzwater said.