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Central America's bitter wars spread

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Largely obscured by events elsewhere in the past six months, Central America's political, social, and economic malaise refuses to go away.

Indeed, the bitter struggle between rival forces in the countries of the region has, if anything, escalated during these months. The prospect that fighting will engulf the whole region looms large.

''Fighting is at an all-time high,'' says a senior United States official recently on the scene. ''The region has become the vortex of a drama that is playing itself out in an escalating confrontation between guerrillas and governments, between nations and peoples.

''It is a battle of words and bullets.

''And it is being fought out in the rugged hill country of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, in the swampy rain forests of Nicaragua, in the major urban areas of all these countries, and at the conference table as well.''

Most observers agree with this assessment.

While the Falklands crisis, Lebanon's traumas, Mexico's economic difficulties , and other issues swept world attention away from Central America, contending forces in El Salvador have been locked in bitter battles. More than 1,000 Salvadorans have lost their lives in the past six months.

El Salvador remains the center of the Central American storm. Leftist guerrillas, after some months of lessened activity, are stepping up their operations. Their current 14-day-old offensive caught government forces off guard. They penetrated the capital city, SanSalvador, cut the Pan American Highway in several spots, and have seized a number of towns along the border with Honduras.

But government forces - or right-wing paramilitary groups allied with the government - appear to have struck back. Last week, as guerrillas moved into several towns near the Honduran border, six top leftist politicians were kidnapped in San Salvador. The six were the leading members of the unarmed, political sector of the opposition still living in El Salvador. Their whereabouts are unknown, and their loss would leave a political vacuum for government opponents in the country.

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