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Nicaragua negotiators upbeat on prospect for peace accord. But main obstacle remains: timetable for political change

As the fourth round of Nicaraguan cease-fire talks begins here today, a peace accord appears tantalizingly close, sources from both sides say. But ``in these sorts of negotiations, nothing is certain until it's done,'' as a member of the Sandinista negotiating team puts it.

``One cannot even say [the contra rebels] will arrive,'' he cautions, pointing out the overall uncertainty of the process. ``But I am optimistic an accord will be signed.''

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At the last round of talks here May 25-28, the contra delegation put forth its demands for laying down arms. The government has accepted most of the rebels' proposal.

One main sticking point remains, however: the question of when political changes will be made.

Diplomatic sources here agree the contras want their demands met before a single rifle is laid down. But the Sandinistas will not accede to major changes outside the country's constitutional framework, say diplomats and sources on the government negotiating team. This would be a lengthier process involving contras in the government's dialogue with the internal opposition. (US `Veterans Peace Convoy' sets out for Nicaragua. Page 3)

Yet there is also pressure to make this the final meeting.

``This will definitely be the last meeting,'' a contra official on the negotiating team said Sunday. ``Both sides have agreed to that.'' He added that while there are obstacles to overcome, ``I am confident we will reach an accord.''

The contras and the Sandinistas have engaged in public bluster over the past few days, perhaps designed to dampen upbeat expectations. Yet privately, numerous sources on both sides say they expect an agreement that will mark substantial progress, if not a definitive, final accord.

But a wild card is Col. Enrique Berm'udez. As the only contra official with any military might, Colonel Berm'udez is the one crucial figure who could successfully play the spoiler. Should he decide to hunker down in Honduras with troops loyal to him and await the possibility of a new Republican administration in Washington, it would ruin the chances for a clean end to the 6-year war here, sources from both sides say.

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Over the weekend there was some speculation here as to whether Berm'udez would even attend the talks.

A contra official on the rebel delegation said Sunday his team ``would be exactly'' the same as before, which implied that Berm'udez would be here today, since he attended the third round of talks. Berm'udez's presence would be an early indicator of the chances of an accord being signed June 9.

Should an accord be signed, the next step will be to start the process of making political changes.

The proposal the contras put forward at the last session included sweeping political changes in the relationship of the Sandinista party to the Army, the judiciary, and the state television system, as well as a call to abolish the military draft.

The Sandinistas went so far as to directly incorporate some of the proposal's language into the government's peace plan, which has been the working document since the first meeting here April 14.

This includes agreement by the Sandinistas to discuss the all-important separation of Army from the Sandinista party - the ultimate source of the government's power. This has been the top demand of the contras and the internal opposition.

The government's preferred forum for deciding the scope of political change here is the National Dialogue between the government and all the opposition parties. Once the contras sign a peace accord, they will be able to participate in the dialogue.

The National Dialogue ``is the constitutional process here'' set up under the Central American peace plan signed last August in Esquipulas, Guatemala, the source on the government delegation says.

That document ``recognizes the legitimacy of all [five regional] governments and their constitutional processes. If the contras can't accept that, too bad.... For the government to give an armed force [the contras] such power outside of the constitutional framework would weaken governments all over the world facing armed groups.''

But, a European diplomat notes that the Sandinistas have an advantage over the rebels once the latter enter the National Dialogue.

With the contras, the dialogue will involve 15 opposition parties - from communist to right wing - arrayed against the government. The group's unity is bound to splinter at some point, as it often has in the past.

The Sandinistas, the European diplomat says, ``have a superior system which is coherent and smart. ... When have the contras ever [shown] they plan on anything? Where are their political programs, schemes, visions of the future?'' ``The contras need to think, plan, work, and present real negotiators'' in such a forum, if they are to force change on the Sandinistas, he adds, ``which they've never paid attention to before.''

His sentiment is shared by numerous diplomats, and even former contra officials, queried on the subject.

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