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Questions about human rights dog contras' image. US Congress will look for improvements before granting further aid

The contras crept down from the hills in the dead of night, past the cattle farm's rudimentary defenses, and opened fire. Pulling back 30 minutes later, they left several buildings blazing, two children and an unarmed woman dead. The attack on the Cana Brava cooperative in the last days of 1986 drew only routine coverage in the Nicaraguan press. Too many co-ops have suffered the same fate in the rebels' five-year-old war against the Sandinista government and too many civilians have died for public outrage to find real expression anymore.

As debate about United States support for the contras continues, old questions about the guerrillas' respect for human rights dog their image both in and outside Nicaragua. But while rebel leaders and their critics bandy words in Washington, attacks such as the one on Cana Brava suggest that on the ground, the problem remains unresolved.

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Such attacks also have led to suggestions by both human rights monitors and rebel advisers that the contras' tactics - concentrating on economic targets like farming cooperatives - are in fact incompatible with international standards of warfare.

Though the contras often blame the Sandinistas for atrocities - claiming Army troops dress as rebels before killing civilians - they acknowledge that their forces do run out of control, and this poses a grave image problem at the very least.

Whether the rebels can win additional aid from the US Congress later this year ``will depend not only on our military results but also on political and moral results, such as our control of human rights abuses,'' says Ernesto Pal'acios, Washington spokesman for the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), the contras' political umbrella group.

That control is clearly not in place yet, judging by the contras' behavior on the battlefield and UNO's efforts to establish a human rights monitoring group. ``I don't think that the civilian leadership knows what is happening with human rights in the field,'' says one US political analyst with close ties to the rebels.

In an attempt to rectify this situation, the US Congress designated $3 million of the $100 million it approved in contra aid last year to pay for ``strengthening programs and activities of the Nicaraguan democratic resistance for the observance and advancement of human rights.'' Congress also insisted that no aid should go to any group that included known human rights violators in its ranks and that the full $100 million should be disbursed only if President Reagan were to report that the contras are ``beginning to implement ... the elimination of human rights abuses.''

In charge of the $3 million program is a young Nicaraguan human rights lawyer, Marta Patricia Baltodano, who headed the nongovernmental Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Managua before leaving Nicaragua late last year. Her appointment is seen in some quarters as a step forward. ``The civilians [among the contra leadership] were able to fire the old human rights official'' who belonged to UNO's largest military organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), ``and put Baltodano in Tegucigalpa [the Honduran capital],'' says an adviser to moderate contra leaders. ``That was a very positive move,'' he adds.

But Ms. Baltodano's arrival in Tegucigalpa was not an easy one. It wasn't long before she received death threats. Baltodano says she does not know who made them. Her friends say they came from FDN members who feared her investigations would reveal their abuses.

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Baltodano says she has spent her first installment of US aid - $200,000 that arrived in November - on setting up offices in Tegucigalpa and the Costa Rican capital, San Jos'e. But she plans to concentrate on contra camps in southern Honduras, near the Nicaraguan frontier.

There, she explains, the first job will be to train some 45 senior members on the significance of the Geneva Convention on warfare insofar as it deals with the treatment of civilians, prisoners, and wounded. That group will then train FDN troops, Baltodano says, and each troop unit will elect its ``human rights officer.''

Those officers will be responsible for monitoring their soldiers' respect for human rights, and will act as her contacts in the field, to report and investigate any abuses. Whether this will work in practice, she says, ``depends on the regional task force chiefs.'' When she met them last month, she found ``a certain skepticism.''

An added difficulty, she foresees, is that ``if something happens inside [Nicaragua], we won't be able to go there to investigate, our only contact will be with the field commander and the human rights officer.'' This will make her dependent for information on the men allegedly responsible for any abuses that might be reported.

``I know that investigations will be very difficult until there is a change in mentality'' among the guerrillas, prompting them to turn in their comrades, Baltodano says. Meanwhile, Baltodano says she supports a decision reached by FDN regional task force commanders not to take prisoners unless ``absolutely necessary.'' The FDN claims to hold 70 Sandinista prisoners at the moment.

``Prisoners are not politically convenient,'' she argues. ``There is a consensus [among the field commanders] that if someone is captured, he should be handed back to the people, unless the troops' security cannot be ensured while that is being done.''

Asked whether such a policy might not be interpreted by FDN troops as effective encouragement to shoot prisoners rather than take them captive, Baltodano said that possibility had not occurred to her.

Paid directly by the US State Department, Baltodano says she is careful not to work too closely with the FDN.

The FDN official formerly in charge of human rights affairs, Carlos Icaza, agrees that ``it is better she be separate'' from the rebel leadership. ``We've offered her all the help we can give but without compromising her so that she looks like an FDN ally.'' But he laments that he cannot use any of the $3 million to set up a system of court martials for alleged human rights offenders.

While the human rights monitoring group will supposedly be in charge of investigating allegations of abuses, and presenting its findings to FDN military commander Col. Enrique Berm'udez, the FDN is meant to be responsible for punishing wrongdoers, Mr. Icaza says.

But since May, the FDN has done nothing to investigate or punish alleged abuses, he admits, claiming that ``there was not the least bit of financing'' for such work.

At a more general level, the contras' rights record is tightly linked to their overall military strategy, as they struggle to maintain an armed presence in Nicaragua and reinforce it from their Honduran camps. Avoiding combat with tactically superior and more heavily armed Sandinista troops, the rebels have increasingly resorted to hit-and-run attacks on economic targets such as cooperatives, foreign military observers here say.

In most of Nicaragua, particularly in the north, those co-ops are defended by civilians armed with AK-47 rifles who have basic militia training. The first line of defense the contras face ``is the militarized co-ops, where you are bound to kill civilians,'' says a top adviser to the contras. ``Massive human rights abuses are almost inevitable.''

To stop attacking cooperatives would require a major shift in military tactics, of which the contras have shown no sign. If unarmed civilians are killed in such attacks, few observers expect rebel commanders to hand over their men for investigation, even if they could determine whose burst of machine gun fire in the middle of the night actually killed the civilians.

Third in a four-part series. Next: Contras' efforts to recruit support of Nicaragua's Indian population.

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