Nicaragua's downing of an alleged rebel supply plane and the capture of one of its American crew has highlighted the United States-backed insurgents' dependence on foreign support to oust the Sandinista government, diplomats say. The plane was shot down in Southern Nicaragua on Oct. 5 by a Sandinista Army battalion as the plane prepared to drop supplies to the rebels, known as contras, the government said.
Three of the plane's four-man American crew were killed. But another American, Eugene Hasenfus, described by Nicaragua as a US military adviser, parachuted to safety before the transport plane crashed in the jungle some 20 miles north of the Costa Rican border.
How the Americans got involved in the war and the exact nature of their tasks was not immediately clear, diplomats said.
``But this does show how the contras are relying on outside help -- not just aid, but also foreign expertise,'' said one European diplomat.
Nicaraguan government authorities saw the flight as part of an operation organized by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which has long been involved in directing rebel activities in Nicaragua. Washington denied any involvement.
Hasenfus is the first American involved in the Nicaraguan war to have been captured since Washington began funneling funds to the contras more than three years ago.
Diplomats interviewed in Managua said it was uncertain whether the Americans involved in the incident had been directed by the CIA or were simply mercenary adventurers contracted privately by the contras.
Nicaraguan rebel links with foreign mercenaries are well-documented. The American Soldier of Fortune magazine for mercenaries runs frequent articles and advertisements promoting the contra cause.
According to US news reports, a private Alabama-based organization known as Civilian Military Assistance (CMA) has sent several mercenaries to fight with the largest contra group, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) based in Honduras.
The US Congress in June approved $100 million in new aid to the rebels, who have failed to make gains on the battlefield and have suffered heavily since the Sandinista Army acquired sophisticated Soviet-made MI-24 helicopter gunships.
Diplomats in Managua said they believed some of the funds, which are yet to be released, would be used to recruit more foreign mercenaries.
``They won't achieve anything without on-the-ground supervision by experts,'' commented one foreign military attache.