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Fierce battle ends a lull in Salvador war

Guerrilla forces in El Salvador have begun what appears to be a major military offensive after seven months of skirmishes and minor clashes with the Salvadorean Army.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 guerrillas attacked San Miguel - the third largest city in the country - over the weekend with what is described here as the heaviest mortar barrage by rebel forces in the four-year conflict. But after 24 hours of combat, the city was in the hands of government troops.

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Three bridges leading into the city were destroyed in the attack, and troops stationed in the garrison here were subjected to a prolonged assault. Reports from Red Cross workers, soldiers involved in the combat, and eyewitnesses indicate that Army losses were heavy. The rebel radio Venceremos claimed 300 government troops were killed, but Army officials in San Miguel say the number is much lower. Although they refused to release casualty figures, an official report from the capital claimed 10 government soldiers were killed and 35 wounded.

The attack, the first since the February assault on the city of Berlin, was conducted by forces from the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front). The rebels cut electric power Saturday evening and began to shell the Army garrison. Soldiers reported that four mortars landed inside their compound. One mortar reportedly destroyed a barracks filled with troops.

Repeated attempts to storm the garrison failed, but a section of the front wall was blown apart. According to troops involved in the combat, firing between rebel and government forces continued for nine hours.

It is unclear just what the rebels' goal was in this city of 100,000. The guerrillas were able to destroy a sugar refinery at the outskirts of the city, and many people here speculated that this was one of the rebels' primary targets. It is common for the FMLN to focus on economic as well as military targets.

Officials have been tight-lipped about this attack on a major military outpost. Observers see the attack as a major embarrassment for the Army, which is trying to improve its image as an effective fighting force.

Col. Jaime Ernesto Flores, the commander of the third batallion, which is responsible for military security here, was rumored to have been absent during the attack. He customarily leaves San Miguel to spend his weekends in the capital. Colonel Flores appeared for the first time in public late Monday afternoon.

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