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Spain flinches but remains calm after firing a top general

A year-long honeymoon between Spain's military and the Socialist government has ended with the dismissal of a top general. Lt. Gen. Fernando Soteras Casamayor, commander of the Seventh Military Region , was fired last week after he referred to 1981 coup plotters as ''gentlemen'' motivated by patriotism and affirmed an old Army assumption that it can take control if the government is ''inefficient and incapable.''

His statements, given in a magazine interview, are considered by most Spanish political analysts to be a direct provocation to Socialist Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, the first leftist leader here since the end of the Franco rightist regime.

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The interview followed months of increasing military outrage over continued Basque terrorism, isolated incidents of flag burnings in the Basque and Catalonian regions, and the refusal of several Basque city halls to display the national flag.

''An active military officer knows very well that he needs authorization to make determined declarations. He who doesn't respect this order knows the consequences perfectly,'' said Deputy Premier Alfonso Guerra.

When Spain's Socialists were elected last October, most Spaniards began wondering how long it would be before military sabers started to rattle in the barracks. After an aborted coup in February 1981, Spain's fragile democracy under a crumbling centrist party was shaken by at least two serious coup plots that were uncovered before they went very far. The country was constantly troubled by rumors of new military plots to seize power.

Surprisingly, after Felipe Gonzalez formed the first Socialist government since the bitter civil war of the 1930s, the rumors died out. Generals and Socialist ministers lavished praise on each other as Defense Minister Narcis Serra announced cautious plans for a 10-year program of reforms within the armed forces.

But the sacking of the equivalent of a five-star general, preceded earlier by house arrests of several outspoken officers who sympathized with imprisoned colleagues who had led the 1981 coup attempt, has many Spaniards worried. Prime Minister Gonzalez insisted that all is ''tranquil'' in the barracks, although he added that ''it's hard to make a decision like this dismissal.'' Defense Minister Serra said, ''There is no possibility of coup noises.''

Right-wing military elements claim that the ''heroic and illustrous'' civil war veteran merely echoed widely shared feelings within the Army that others have not dared to express aloud. Even before the interview, there was a petition for a pardon of the 1981 coup ringleaders in circulation at the barracks in the central northwestern city of Valladolid, where General Soteras is in command.

Many generals, however, were said to be irritated at the arrogance of Soteras speaking in the name of the military command and insisted that the jailed coup leaders are generally considered disgraced.

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Although politicians insist there is no danger of another coup attempt, signs of nervousness began to appear. Smiling pictures of King Juan Carlos carrying out his usual kingly duties are given big play in the Spanish press. The handsome monarch is generally regarded as the one who ended the 1981 coup attempt. The obvious impression is that while the government fires a general, the King is sufficiently relaxed to enjoy some jokes with his military buddies. For now that seems to be clearly the case.

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