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Contras lag in bid to make gains before US debates funds

The largest Nicaraguan rebel group is at least six weeks behind schedule in its US-sponsored mobilization, rebel and diplomatic sources here report. The delay could be fatal for the contra movement, many informed sources say. The United States Congress is expected to begin debating additional funding for the contras in spring, and these sources feel the contras will need several battlefield successes by then, to show they are worthy of continued funding.

As the contras and their US advisers struggle to get the military buildup on track, the contras' Honduran base camps are under observation by several hundred Nicaraguan troops. These troops remain in Honduras three weeks after the Honduran Air Force bombed their positions in an effort to force them out, the rebel and diplomatic sources say.

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But despite the delays and the presence of Sandinista troops, an undetermined number of Honduran-based contras have moved into Nicaragua in groups of about 20 each, a rebel and another informed source said. The small groups represent a new tactic adopted by the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main contra army, to make operations more effective. According to these sources, there are an estimated 5,000 contras in central Nicaragua, some of which never left Nicaragua.

After President Reagan signed the legislation authorizing $100 million in military and humanitarian aid to contras last October, an informed source here said freshly trained and equipped troops would begin operations in Nicaragua at Christmas and would be at full strength by mid-January. The same source now says initial operations cannot begin before February, and it could be April before full-scale operations are under way.

Once in Nicaragua, contra troops are expected to concentrate on attacking bridges, trucks, power lines, and other targets that will make it difficult for the Sandinistas to strike back. They also hope to move soldiers into the populated Pacific coastal region where they can demonstrate to the average Nicaraguan they are capable of fighting the Sandinistas.

The contras blame the delays on having to deal with US bureaucracy. One contra source specified a shortage of twin-barreled 20 millimeter antiaircraft cannons to counter Sandinista attack helicopters which have proved highly effective. The source said the contras had received one such weapon, though many more had been expected by now.

Other contras blame the difficulties on getting supplies into the rebel base camps and interruptions caused by the Sandinista presence in Honduras. The sole road into the contra camps often runs to within 100 feet of the Nicaraguan border. Sandinista troops have destroyed two contra supply trucks on that road in recent weeks, making the contras reluctant to move large volumes by that route.

The rebels have been supplying their base camps by air as well. However, there is no landing strip near the base camps so they have to use helicopters that have limited cargo capacity or parachute the supplies in, the first informed source said. Both methods are slow and expensive.

Though analysts debate the impact Sandinista troops in Honduras have had on the contra buildup there, they acknowledge it has hampered supply shipments and troop movement.

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