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Sandinistas are latest victor in propaganda war with contras. Army takes town to disprove rebels' claim of holding land

It was the battle of the dateline. The Sandinista Army won it, after deploying 36 helicopters and more than 3,000 troops. And to prove they had won it, they took 70 journalists last week into Las Amacas, so that they could write their stories from one of Nicaragua's most remote regions.

Since January, that dateline had belonged to reporters brought secretly into Nicaragua by the contra rebels.

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The Sandinista Popular Army, the official name of the Nicaraguan Army, had little to show in military terms for what Defense Minister Humberto Ortega Saavedra called the largest operation he had ever mounted. Reporters helicoptered into the thickly jungled Bocay valley, saw only two contra dead, a handful of thatched huts, and a few scattered belongings that the fleeing rebels had left behind.

But the Sandinista assault had served a political purpose. The camp 10 miles inside Nicaragua, to which the contras had invited foreign journalists in recent weeks in order to illustrate the rebels' presence, was again in government hands.

``One reason [the contras] were using the camp was propagandistic, to give the impression they were in possession of land inside Nicaragua,'' a Nicaraguan Army official said. ``[Militarily] they weren't doing us any damage there, but we were interested from a political perspective.''

The Bocay valley is one of the most inaccessible spots in Nicaragua, penetrated only by rivers, and inhabited only by wild animals such as monkeys and boar.

Contra officials say their men have established a number of camps in the area to coordinate logistical operations for troops further inside the country, but they scorn any suggestion that the loss of one such center is a serious blow.

Last week's retreat from Las Amacas means ``nothing,'' claimed Indalecio Rodr'iguez, a leader of the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the largest contra army. ``Guerrillas don't fight wars of position,'' he said. ``The Sandinistas have to defend positions, but we don't. If a camp comes under massive attack, we just move.''

The contras' positions in the Bocay valley came under the most massive attack the Army has ever launched. The Army mobilized four Irregular Struggle Battalions, including 1,600 heliborne rapid-deployment forces, carried in 24 Soviet-built MI-8 and MI-17 transport helicopters. The operation was supported by fire from 12 MI-24 helicopter gunships, and involved almost every helicopter not undergoing maintenance that the Sandinistas possess, say foreign military observers here.

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General Ortega said the Army had killed some 100 contras, and pushed another 700 into Honduras, and that eight Sandinista soldiers had been killed. Those casualty figures, however, could not be independently confirmed, and it appeared that the bulk of the rebel forces had withdrawn before the Army arrived.

Although almost all the rebels escaped, they were forced to retreat into Honduras, according to the Sandinista account, which was confirmed by a diplomat with access to Western intelligence reports.

This was a blow for the anti-Sandinista forces at the level of international public relations, particularly in the United States Congress, which is due to vote on an administration request for another $105 million in contra aid in the autumn.

``Many people in Washington use whether [the contras] can control territory as a litmus test'' of the rebels' military capabilities, a Western diplomat here says. By that benchmark, military experts here agree, the contras cannot hope to succeed.

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