Salvador Strikes Back at Rebels : Central America: Guerrillas set up barricades to control capital neighborhoods. The army puts the death toll at 305. Washington blames Nicaragua and Cuba.


Leftist guerrillas dug trenches and set up barricades to establish control over several poor neighborhoods in El Salvador's capital Monday, while the U.S.-backed government tried to rout them with ground troops and gunships strafing from overhead.

A nationwide traffic ban by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels brought a halt to cross-country land transportation. In the capital, few buses were running and most shops and gas stations were closed. The U.S. Embassy was closed for security reasons.

By early Monday, the army had reported 305 dead and 273 wounded throughout the country, including soldiers, guerrillas and civilians. More victims continued to arrive at hospitals throughout the day.

A state of siege suspending constitutional guarantees was in effect, and all radio and television news broadcasts remained under government control. At dusk, residents of the capital rushed home to meet a 6 p.m. curfew.

During the day, women in well-to-do neighborhoods waited for hours in lines at the few open supermarkets to stock up on food. Many residents caught in the embattled low-income barrios said they had run out of money and food and had not eaten since the guerrilla offensive began Saturday.

Civilian and military casualties continued to rise with heavy fighting in the crowded barrios. U.S. Ambassador William Walker predicted that they would climb higher because the army was expected to launch a major counteroffensive.

"The armed forces are going to try to establish control over areas where the guerrillas have ensconced themselves," Walker said.

A military source added: "There is no way to remove (the rebels) without major civilian casualties."

Already, more than 360 people have been taken to public hospitals in the capital with shrapnel and bullet wounds. Most appear to be civilians, although some of them could be rebel combatants.

Hospital and forensic sources said at least 132 bodies have been recovered in the capital alone.

One of the dead was an American teacher, Christopher Babcock, 25, his mother, Kay Babcock, confirmed in Spokane, Wash.

Overworked public hospitals attended to patients with the worst head and internal injuries, while those with arm and leg wounds waited hours in the hallways for treatment. Hospital officials said they did not have enough blood, anesthesia or suture materials.

The rebels, meanwhile, continued to battle the armed forces in several provinces throughout the country. There were unconfirmed reports that the guerrillas held five neighborhoods in the eastern provincial capital of San Miguel and most of San Francisco Gotera, in Morazan province.

In Washington on Monday, the Bush Administration condemned the rebels' offensive and laid some of the blame for it on arms supplies to the FMLN from Cuba and Nicaragua.

"The latest attacks show that much more of the Sandinista arms designed to destabilize and overthrow the legitimate government of El Salvador have been getting through," White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said. " . . . The President stands with the freely elected government of El Salvador in condemning this senseless invasion."

During a speech to the Organization of American States, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said that "the attacks by FMLN guerrillas on private homes and citizens were acts of terror, pure and simple."

In San Salvador, fighting continued in at least six poor and working-class neighborhoods along the northern length of the capital.

In the suburb of Soyapango, a government gunship fired machine guns while helicopters rocketed guerrillas hiding in overgrown residential streets and narrow passageways crowded with cement-block and clapboard houses.

The rebels responded by firing mortars and rounds from AK-47 rifles at the aircraft, and they dug three-foot-deep trenches across paved streets. One youth said he saw the rebels laying mines in the trenches.

Residents claimed that at least 500 armed and uniformed guerrillas were on the ground and had been doing training exercises in formation Sunday in the suburb. Their count could not be confirmed because journalists and ambulance workers could not make their way into the zone as a result of the fighting.

Civilians unable to get back home stood at the edge of the neighborhood watching the combat and wringing their hands for relatives trapped inside the battleground.

Walker blamed the civilian toll largely on the rebels, who he said were responsible for taking the war into heavily populated areas. But he added: "We can not categorically state that houses have not been hit by (army) helicopter gunships."

He said rebels have damaged a dozen of the military's helicopters but that there are enough reserves to keep an adequate fleet in the air.

On Sunday night, the army evicted rebels from the National University, where they apparently had set up a military base. However, there were reports that the guerrillas were back on campus Monday with snipers.

Also on Monday, rebels held the southeastern Santa Marta neighborhood with no challenge from army troops, although a dead combatant from earlier fighting lay on a sidewalk.

The guerrillas checked the identification of civilians entering and leaving the neighborhood and patted them down for guns. They put men and boys to work pulling up cobblestones to build barricades.

Women who were trying to keep their children indoors said they had run out of food days ago.

"We're hungry," said Vilma Oliva de Guerra, 33, the mother of four. "And we're afraid because our walls are not very secure. We're afraid of combat."

"We're praying they won't come in with helicopters and attack (the rebels) here," said Maria Isabel Lopez, 41. "If they do, we'll be the targets."

The guerrillas would appear to need a civilian infrastructure to mount such a large offensive in the capital, but most people appeared to be fence-sitting, waiting to see who would come out on top.

The offensive is the largest the rebels have ever launched in the capital and apparently is geared to strengthen their hand at the bargaining table with the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani.

The government and guerrillas have met twice for talks since September and were supposed to meet again this month in Venezuela. However, the rebels suspended the meeting after a bomb exploded Oct. 31 at the headquarters of a leftist labor union, killing 10 people.

U.S. officials estimate that 1,300 to 1,500 guerrillas are engaged in the assault on the capital. Officials said they do not know how many of the rebels' part-time militia are fighting.

U.S. and military officials insist the offensive has failed militarily, but they concede that the rebels have made important propaganda gains.

"Politically, this put them (the rebels) back on the map," conceded a military source. "You kill one soldier in San Salvador and it's worth 50 in the countryside."

The United States supports the Cristiani government with about $1.4 million per day in military and economic aid. The White House said Bush has not spoken with Cristiani and that Salvadoran officials have not asked for any emergency U.S. aid.

Asked whether the rebel offensive might lead to any wider U.S. involvement, Fitzwater replied: "We can never predict the future. But at this point, it's not anticipated."

Walker predicted that the army will have control of the city and end the violence within a couple of days, but another diplomat said rebel reinforcements were arriving from outside the capital.

Diplomats said the U.S. government and Salvadoran military had been expecting a rebel attack in the city to begin last weekend but that they had dramatically underestimated the rebels' strength.

The rebels' political allies, Ruben Zamora and Guillermo Ungo, who lead legal leftist parties, reportedly were in hiding Monday after public calls for their deaths by rightist extremists.

Ungo and Zamora returned from exile in 1987 but never formally broke with the rebels. In announcing the state of siege on Sunday, Cristiani indicated they would have to take sides.

Walker said he believes civil liberties will be restored in El Salvador after the offensive has been put down, and that Ungo and Zamora would be able to continue their political work in the country.

Times staff writer Jim Mann, in Washington, contributed to this story.

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