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'Victory' eludes both sides in El Salvador war

Quick impressions from what promises to be a prolonged guerrilla war: * Morale is up among some government military officers because of American support and promises of more aid. But government soldiers are young and nervous and learning some of their lessons the hard way -- by geting ambushed, for example.

* Guerrillas, too, are often inexperienced. Vietnamese guerrillas would have made quick work of several of the bridges that the Salvadoran guerrillas have attacked. The Salvadorans have merely put sizable holes in them; these can be fairly quickly repaired. However, guerrillas are reported to have downed one big bridge in the north of the country.

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* Small groups of guerrillas seem to be everywhere. Government officials comfort themselves with the repetition of one theme: The guerrillas' "final offensive" of January failed.

But there is evidence that the guerrillas learned much from that offensive. They have the government on the defensive -- psychologically at least -- in a number of places. Their sabotage actions, while not massive, are helping to drain the country. Even with the use of helicopters, digging the guerrillas out of El Salvador's rugged, volcanic terrain is proving difficult.

* Conclusion: A total military victory by the government is unlikely no matter how much weaponry and advice the United States pumps into the country. The two sides are so far apart that negotiations seem equally unlikely, at least for the moment.

Support from the nation's many farmers is critical to both sides. But the government's agrarian reform program appears to be faltering.If it fails, it could prove to be a big plus for the guerrillas, but it is too early to make any final judgment on the program.

The first stage of the program, much of which has been implemented, benefits only some 250,000 to 400,000 persons, in a country where more than 3 million depend on farming.

There are strong indications that Phase 2 of the program, which would affect the nation's leading export crop, coffee, has not only been delayed but, in effect, is going to be frozen indefinitely. This is partly because of numerous problems afflicting Phase 1, including a lack of financial credits and technicians for cooperatives, and alleged corruption and accounting problems in the banking system.

The government's promise of elections, meanwhile, appears to be having little impact on Salvadorans. Many have grown cynical about elections because of repeated election fraud perpetuated by the military in the past.

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The government might be able to impose a given election result. People in some parts of the country are so frightened, they would undoubtedly play it safe and vote as they are advised to vote.

In the meantime, near Suchitoto, only 30 miles northeast of the capital city of San Salvador, the governmenet has had difficulty tracking down small, elusive bands of guerrillas. A major operation to clear the slopes of the 4,000-foot Guazapa Volcano was supposed to end a few days ago. But it has apparently been extended.

Near San Martin, on the road to Suchitoto and only eight or nine miles to the east-northeast of the capital, little moves except the Army, the National Guard, and journalists. National Guard officers at San Martin say that the guerrillas have hit one or two vehicles every day on the road to Suchitoto.

A few miles north of San Martin, a tall, blue-eyed national Guard officer is setting off into the countryside from the entrance of a hacienda with about 20 dark-eyed, dark-skinned peasant boys carrying rifles and grenades. The patrol's officer is a head taller than the others. With his well-nourished figure and light skin, he looks like one of the country's elite. The patrol moves cautiously down a trail that looks like ideal ambush country.

I ask one of the youths how much combat experiences he's had.

"Lots," replies the 18-year-old with the German-made automatic rifle. I don't believe him.

Up ahead the country trail is cut every 20 yards or so by barricades of stones and trees thrown down by the guerrillas. A photographer and I decide to leave the patrol to more foolhardy newsmen.

Sure enough, the patrol is hit about an hour later by sniper fire and then by what appears to be a small ambush. Back at hacienda headquarters, where soldiers lounge in hammocks and cook a chicken, shots can be heard.

A sergeant lets out a whoop: "They're already into a fight!"

But losses on the government side are reported as one killed and three wounded. A French photographer with the patrols says the guerrillas were insulting their adversaries in the patrol, shouting: "If you're so brave, come and get us!"

"The place is thick with guerrillas," says a weary soldier back at the hacienda.

If this had been Vietnam, the patrol would have probably got support from helicopter gunships or artillery fire. As it was, only a few mortar rounds were fired.

In the deserted village of Agua Cayo, several miles off the road to Suchitoto , there is a red, spray-painted sign that would quicken the pulse of any believer in the Central American domino theory. The theory holds that Anastasio Somoza's Nicaragua was the first domino to fall in what could be a four-country chain of dominoes leading up to oil- rich Mexico.

The sign says: "Somoza today, the junta tomorrow. Long live the Central American revolution."

But at Suchitoto, a National Guard lieutenant tells a journalist: "We are defending our nation against foreigners who have come to fight here, and here they will be buried."

the foreigner"he speaks of are supposed to be Nicara- guans or Cubans. But no such foreigners have been captured. US officials are skeptical of such claims of involvement by foreign troops, although they are fequently made by the Salvadorans. At this stage, it looks as though El Salvador is in for a long civil war with plenty of Salvadorans vailable to do the fighting on both sides.

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