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Border flare-up raises questions about Sandinista strategy. Aim of Nicaragua assault may be to push contras from Honduras

The escalation in hostilities between Nicaragua and Honduras is not generally expected here to broaden into a wider conflict. Honduras, however, is expected to insist that Sandinista troops withdraw from Honduran territory, according to Western diplomats and local officials.

The escalation occured this past weekend when Sandinista units allegedly attacked a Honduran military post and three villages near the border. This was followed by a Honduran air attack on Nicaraguan troops.

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One reason a broader conflict is seen as unlikely is the expectation that the Sandinistas will, as one source closely monitoring the military situation in the border area put it, ``pull back fairly quickly.''

The alleged Nicaraguan Army assaults on Honduran military outposts in the contra-infested ``Las Vegas Salient'' and the Honduran reaction came after several weeks of skirmishes in the area, according to sources here. The fighting has prompted thousands of civilians to flee further north for their lives, government and refugee officials say. Displaced people were still leaving the area Saturday afternoon, reporting fighting that day.

It is unclear why the Popular Sandinista Army (EPS) would have attacked Honduran military positions. One theory here is that the Sandinistas may have thought they were attacking contra positions surrounding the main Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) rebel camp, which the Sandinistas had been harassing for several weeks. On the other hand, Sandinista intelligence on contra locations in Las Vegas Salient is too accurate to allow such a mistake, say observers who have watched the situation on the border unfold.

More likely, argues one such source, is that the Sandinistas are seeking to pressure the Honduran government into demanding that the contras should leave the safety of their rear bases and take the war into Nicaragua. ``One of the Sandinista aims is to harass the Hondurans as much as they can get away with it,'' the source said. Under direct assault from the Sandinistas, he added, the Honduran military might be persuaded to see the contra presence inside Honduras as the source of its problems and to insist that the rebels remove themselves. [The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the United States has agreed to a Honduran government request that all contras based in Honduras leave and move into Nicaraguan, possibly by April.]

At the same time, suggests one Western diplomat, Managua ``may be trying to put more muscle into its proposal for a multilateral peace force'' along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border which it hopes would hinder contra infiltration. The latest violence, the diplomat argues, will ``raise the profile'' of the problem in international forums such as the United Nations.

A chronology of the latest incidents pieced together from local residents, official Honduran statements, and a source closely following military events, suggests that the fighting increased last Thursday night. After dark, a Honduran protest note to Managua claimed Sandinista troops overran a lightly defended Honduran Army position near the border in the southwest of the salient, wounding three soldiers and capturing two.

Early Saturday morning, according to a Honduran official, between 200 and 400 Sandinistas attacked and captured three more Honduran outposts near Capire. The contras are believed to have their main base camp near Capire. After apparently sending a squadron of fighter bombers over the area to reconnoiter Saturday morning, the Honduran high command ordered air strikes on four Sandinista positions Saturday afternoon, a source said.

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Honduran jets launched a second wave of bombing Sunday, other sources added. Casualty figures were unavailable.

Meanwhile, in a replay of events last March, when between 800 and 1,500 Sandinista troops attacked a contra training camp in Honduras, US pilots flew Honduran reinforcements to the combat region in US Army helicopters.

Some 1,200 Honduran soldiers were believed to have been deployed in northern sectors of the salient, but there were no reports they had engaged in combat.

``Indications are that the Sandinistas are withdrawing, and I think this incident is drawing to a close,'' one senior Honduran official said yesterday morning.

The Las Vegas Salient, dubbed ``New Nicaragua'' for the thousands of rebels and Nicaraguan refugees living in the area, is referred to by Managua as ``frontier territory in which it claims the right to fight the rebels.'' The Sandinista Army is understood to have run patrols inside Honduras regularly for many months, harassing the contras, and blocking their infiltration routes into Nicaragua.

Fighting between the Sandinistas and contras heightened noticeably at the end of October. Since then, the few small Honduran troops in the salient have also been drawn into the conflict. While the Honduran military appears ready to ignore Sandinista incursions as long as they target only rebel positions the attacks on Army posts seem to have been the last straw.

Over the past six weeks, Honduran troops have come under Sandinista fire fairly often, say Western diplomats and a Honduran official. But Thursday's attack ``made this a whole different ball game,'' the Western diplomat said. Saturday's statement, announcing that Honduran Armed Forces chief Gen. Humberto Regalado had ordered the Air Force to attack Sandinista units, warned that the air strikes would continue until ``Sandinista troops have abandoned the sector.''

Nicaragua's Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto said Sunday that Managua had no troops inside Honduras and suggested that the EPS did not intend to press its reported incursions.

At the same time, said the source monitoring the border, ``I don't think the Hondurans want to get stuck into this too deeply. They may be afraid of getting something back they can't cope with.''

On the other hand, said the Western diplomat, heavy troop movements over the past week indicated that the Hondurans were ``getting ready for something fairly major'' and that ``they are more prepared now than they have ever been to impose their will on the situation.''

``Honduras has been highly tolerant of the Sandinista presence,'' the senior Honduran official said. ``What has happened now was practically inevitable and many Hondurans feel we should have acted sooner.''

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