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Reagan confronts escalation of Central America warfare

In Central America, the wars pound on - while in Washington, President Reagan readies a major policy address for delivery tonight on the escalating conflict.

* In El Salvador, left-leaning guerrillas have launched a new antigovernment offensive, this one in honor of Comandante Ana Maria, a Salvadorean guerrilla leader assassinated in Nicaragua in early April.

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* On the Honduras-Nicaragua border, sporadic fighting continues between US-supported, Honduran-based counterrevolutionary forces and Nicaragua's Sandinista Army. Rebel units are penetrating deep into northern Nicaragua.

* On the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border, anti-Sandinista cadres reportedly led by one-time Sandinista folk hero Eden Pastora Gomez have inflicted casualties on the Sandinistas in several skirmishes.

All this takes place against a flurry of peace efforts by Colombia, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela, although not much progress is evident.

Meanwhile, in El Salvador, both the government and guerrillas are changing leadership: the government because the controversial defense minister, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, has been forced out of office; the guerrillas because a senior commander, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, died - reportedly a suicide - last week.

This disarray in both government and guerrilla camps is bound to figure in the President's assessment of the area tonight - one of the first major speeches Reagan himself has made on the Central American conflict. There is no doubt that the situation throughout the region is more fluid than it has been in weeks.

In Nicaragua, fighting has been more intense and widespread over the past week. Some analysts again hammered at the theme that the fighting threatens to engulf the region.

Brazil became involved in the Central American debate last week when it detained four Libyan planes containing tons of arms and explosives that had landed in Brazil to refuel. Libyan flight documents had said the planes were carrying medical supplies bound for Nicaragua. Brazilian authorities reportedly checked the planes' contents after a tip-off from the Central Intelligence Agency that the planes carried munitions instead of medical supplies.

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Washington jumped on the incident, suggesting the cargoes had been destined for the insurgents in El Salvador - and indeed the US Embassy in Brasilia was in close contact with Brazilian authorities. At week's end Brazil announced the cargoes had been unloaded and that the planes were free to leave. It said the arms would be returned separately to Libya.

The Reagan administration has contended all along that the Salvadorean guerrillas were getting aid from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere - and that much of this aid was funneled through Nicaragua. But the administration has been reluctant - or perhaps unable - to give proof of its contention.

Whether Mr. Reagan will provide proof in this week's policy address is unclear, but he is certain to mention events in Brazil.

The President also is expected to discuss El Salvador's replacement of General Garcia with Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova as defense minister.

Over the last few months, Washington has been increasingly critical of how the Salvadorean Army is conducting the war against leftist guerrillas. This week it made no effort to hide its hope that General Vides will inject new fighting spirit into the Salvadorean troops, now some 22,000-strong. The guerrillas have become bolder this year, striking in both countryside and cities, with forces estimated at 5,000 to 7,000 men and women.

Whether Vides can improve the Army's fighting spirit remains a question, however. The general has relatively little battlefield experience. Some Salvadorean soldiers call him ''Senorita Casanova'' in criticism of this lack of war experience.

Another question is what effect the death of Cayetano Carpio will have on guerrilla forces. He is said to have killed himself after discovering that a trusted aide had orchestrated the murder of Melida Anaya Montes. (Miss Anaya Montes, or Comandante Ana Maria, is the commander for whom the current guerrilla offensive against the Salvadorean government is named.)

Cayetano Carpio was perhaps the most respected military commander in guerrilla ranks. The circumstances of his death and that of Anaya Montes would appear to leave a deep split in their rebel group, the Popular Liberation Forces. At the same time, his passing may remove an obstacle in the path of negotiations to end the Salvadorean war. Cayetano Carpio adamantly opposed such talks. And in a way his and General Garcia's removal from the scene may give a boost to peace efforts in the region.

That, at least, is the hope of Mexican officials who believe that the newly formed ''Contadora group'' of Latin nations may meet next week to survey new peace prospects for the region. The group, named after the Panamanian island where the foreign ministers of Mexico, Colombia, Panama, and Venezuela met in January.

The foreign ministers made a whirlwind tour of the capitals of the five Central American countries two weeks ago, and met with the foreign ministers of Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala last week.

Meanwhile in Washington, President Reagan will use the forum of a joint session of Congress to appeal for more US military aid to El Salvador. Last week the House Foreign Affairs Committee rejected his request for another $50 million in military aid to that country.

The President's speech is not expected to issue a new blueprint for US Central American policy. He is expected to repeat his view that the US cannot shy away from taking an active role in trying to keep an area close to the US from falling into the hands of leaders likely to oppose US interests.

Back in Central America, with death tolls mounting and the economy of the region slipping into chaos, analysts say there is little ground for optimism that the fighting is going to lessen anytime soon.


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