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Reagan handles Nicaragua with kid gloves

The Reagan administration appears to be moving cautiously on charges that Nicaraguan officials have helped to ship arms to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador.

There is concern that a public dispute with Nicaragua could force the Sandinista leadership into the Cuban camp.

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Although some administration officials think Nicaragua is already in that camp, others disagree and are eager to do what they can to keep Nicaragua from spreading Marxism through Central America.

The new US administration is clearly feeling its way along on other Central American policies, too.

It fired US Ambassador Robert White from his post in El Salvador, although it indicated the dismissal does not necessarily mean a change in US policy toward the country.

For the time being, it appears the Reagan administration will continue support for the centrist junta in El Salvador, just as Ambassador White and former President Carter did.

It is noteworthy that the US is keeping Mr. Carter's ambassador to Nicaragua, Lawrence A. Pezzullo, in his post. An activist diplomat, Mr. Pezzullo won his spurs dealing with the Sandinista leadership.

Charges that Nicaragua is providing arms to Salvadoran guerrillas are bound to make his role difficult.

Nicaraguans deny they have helped the guerrillas. Over the weekend, Nicaragua's ambassador to Washington, Rita Delia Casco, called the charges "unfounded and malicious."

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Former Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, for his part, says "there's no question" Nicaragua is passing Cuban arms through to the guerrillas.

New State Department officials are keeping a tight lip on the issue, however, airing the charges unofficially and signaling that US-Nicaraguan relations are at a crucial point. The Reagan team has been guardedly friendly toward the Sandinistas, yet it is deeply concerned about the prospects of getting along with the Marxist-leaning Sandinista leadership. The administration seems to hope that the next person in the critical post of assistant secretary for inter-American affairs expected to be American Express International's James R. Green e.

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