Nicarauga's President says he received a phone call from Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo to warn that the United States was pressuring Honduras to order air strikes on Nicaraguan border positions. This call occurred Saturday, according to a group of Americans who met with President Daniel Ortega Saavedra Monday. The tone of the conversation apparently helps explain why the Sandinistas are moderating their criticism of President Azcona despite the unprecedented Honduran strafing of Nicaraguan targets Sunday.
The conversation, the sources say, indicates the Sandinistas are operating under the assumption that the US directed the Honduran military to hit the Sandinista targets against Honduran wishes. This Nicaraguan view contrasts sharply with versions presented by the Honduran military, the US, and Western diplomats.
The Honduran Army said the strafing was to dislodge Sandinista positions in an area of Honduras that juts into Nicaragua known as the ``Las Vegas Salient.'' The main rebel camps are located in the salient.
Western sources say Nicaragua has kept about 1,000 troops in the salient since a major Sandinista incursion in March. A visit to the Nicaraguan side of the border last month indicated that thousands of Sandinista troops, backed by artillery and helicopters, were being massed to thwart an anticipated rebel offensive. With the weekend Honduran attack, Nicaragua is concerned about having to confront two armies instead of one.
Nicaragua's Defense Ministry reported Sunday that two fighter jets crossed into Nicaraguan air space from Honduras and bombed a military outpost, killing seven soldiers and wounding nine. Two other planes strafed a military airstrip in the Nicaraguan town of Wiwili, 15 miles from the border. Reporters at the scene said the attack caused light wounds to two civilians and three soldiers. There was no significant damage to the airstrip.
Honduras has denied staging the cross-border raids.
``They have to be from Honduras. The contras do not have those planes,'' says a Western official, referring to the French-made jets used by the Honduran Air Force.
But instead of blaming Honduras for the attacks, the Sandinistas are blaming the US. ``We have not had any difficulty with Honduras,'' Lt. Col. Javier Carrion, the Sandinista military chief of the border region, said Monday. Citing intelligence sources, he said the attacks were carried out by ``forces directed by North Americans ... from Honduran territory.'' He did not have any information as to who piloted the planes.
President Ortega's position toward Honduras appears to be conciliatory. On Monday, he and Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann visited a US religious delegation from the Quixote Center, a Maryland group collecting humanitarian aid for Nicaragua. Three Americans at the meeting said Ortega mentioned speaking with Azcona. The Ortega-Azcona conversations came a day after Mr. d'Escoto sent a letter to Honduras ``energetically protesting'' Honduran accusations that Sandinista troops attacked border villages.
``[Ortega] said Azcona called him to say Honduras was under a lot of pressure from the US ... and [Azcona] did not want to take responsibility for whatever might happen,'' Myrna Santiago of Los Angeles said.
The group's leader, William Callahan, said Ortega ``certainly was under the impression that Honduras was under pressure from the US, and [that Honduras] was trying to resist that pressure. He was bending over backwards to refer to Honduras as a sister nation with whom Nicaragua shares common problems,'' he added.
The Sandinista military commander in Wiwili, 1st Lt. Daniel Jiron, said recently the border strategy is intended to exacerbate tensions in Honduras so Azcona will feel internal pressure to expel the contras. ``We have two main objectives. First, by proving that the [contras] use Honduran territory we can show it is not a civil war as they claim, but an external war imposed on us by the US. Second, the contras can create certain social problems in Honduras and force an outbreak of discontent. Then Honduras will have to look for a solution.''
One Western diplomat describes the Honduran action more as a political effort to appease conservative elements at home than a buckling under to US pressure.