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Terrorist attack in Salvador:new guerrilla strategy?

The terrorist attack that claimed the lives of four United States marines and nine other people here Wednesday night is being read -- at least by the government -- as a sign that Salvadorean leftist guerrillas are desperate. Government officials suggest the attack is part of an overall guerrilla strategy to reenter the cities, following guerrilla reverses in the war in the countryside.

Other observers, however, point out that most urban terrorist attacks here in recent months have been the work of a small guerrilla group, the Clare Elizabeth Ramires Front, which broke away from the umbrella guerrilla organization in early 1983. This latest attack, they say, bears the hallmark of that splinter group, which, they suggest, took advantage of the lax security measures followed by off-duty US personnel.

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At time of writing no one had claimed responsibility for the attack.

Ironically the attack on the marines comes at a time when the US embassy itself is undergoing a massive security upgrading. The embassy building has been covered with a metal curtain meant to repel rocket-propelled grenades. The outside perimeter walls of the already impressive fortress are being rebuilt with inch-thick steel reinforcing bars.

While many embassy personnel are transported in bulletproof vans and cars protected by shotgun-toting security guards, the four US marines were armed only with radios as they sat in the sidewalk caf'e.

The Salvadorean government is casting the attack in the light of a new wave of urban-guerrilla attacks.

Guerrilla deserters say the civilian population has borne the brunt of the Army's attacks and many have left the rebel zones, depriving the guerrillas of important logistical support.

This trend, as well as shortages of ammunition, has significantly lowered guerrilla morale, according to Miguel Castellanos, a former member of the central committee of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five guerrilla organizations that make up the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrilla umbrella group.

Desertions have risen, and many guerrilla units are operating at less than full strength, says Mr. Castellanos, whose own desertion stunned the FPL.

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Documents the army claims it captured from the rebels revealed that the guerrillas recognized the need to reactivate their urban activities in both the military and political spheres. The rebel groups had formerly functioned as urban guerrillas until government and death-squad killings (which eventually claimed 50,000 lives) and the failure of the January 1981 ``final offensive'' to spark an urban insurrection forced the guerrillas to abandon the cities and build a rural army.

Now with the heightened importance of the political aspects of the war, the guerrilla organizations are seeking ways of reentering the cities, say analysts.

The Clare Elizabeth splinter group is perceived with hostility by other groups in the FMLN and is the only one of the guerrilla groups that has emphasized urban-terror tactics without regard for nearby civilians.

In May 1983 the second in command of the US military group, Lt. Commander Albert A. Schaufelberger was assassinated by guerrillas.

While a full-fledged civil war rages in part of the country, except from short-term power outages life in the capital shows little overt sign of the war. This calm may have accounted for the less-stringent security precautions for US military personnel within the city.

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