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Nicaragua digs in. Sandinistas, seeing themselves under fire from US, clamp down on dissent at home

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The gloves are off -- and now it's down to bare knuckles. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra charges that new United States aid to Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels ``is a declaration of war against Nicaragua.'' And, in turn, war is what the country's ruling Sandinistas have declared on their political opponents.

President Ortega's series of angry attacks in recent days on ``traitors,'' ``antipatriotic criminals,'' and ``US agents,'' found their first concrete expression in last week's indefinite closure of La Prensa, Nicaragua's sole opposition daily newspaper.

The conservative paper, long a thorn in the side of the Sandinistas, had become ``the voice of reaction [and] a US administration spokesman,'' said senior Interior Ministry official Raul Cordon in justifying the move. ``The war against Nicaragua is sufficient reason for the closure.''

La Prensa executive Carlos Holmann sees things differently. ``This is a direct reprisal for the $100-million [contra-aid] vote,'' he says. ``What they could not stand in us was that we did not servilely follow a single line of thought dictated by the Sandinista Front.''

Though La Prensa, which had been subject to censorship for the past four years, represented no real threat to the government, it had become a powerful symbol for a wide range of political, economic, and religious dissenters from Sandinista policy.

Those dissenters are themselves widely expected to come under fire in the near future, following Ortega's warnings that Nicaragua's eight-month-old state of emergency will now be enforced ``in all its rigor, with no hesitation,... strictly and severely.''

``This is a threat of heavier repression against the whole opposition, without distinction,'' laments a leader of the opposition Popular Social Christian Party, who also condemns US aid to the contras.

``I would have hoped that [the Sandinista government] could distinguish between real contra supporters in the country, and the rest of the opposition,'' the opposition spokseman adds.

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