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Salvador Army tries new war tactics. Top officer devises new military and political strategies

From the platform of a circling helicopter, this mountain hamlet looks like a ghost town. Even on the ground, as some of the fiercest troops in the United States-funded Salvadorean Army lead a group of visitors down into the village, only a few townspeople stare out dully from their doorways. The rest of the doors are bolted shut.

Perqu'in, however, is not abandoned. Despite its location in the heart of guerrilla territory, more than 1,500 people still live here. But since Monday, when Army troops of the ARCE Battallion pushed out the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) and launched a new operation, the villagers have crawled into their shells.

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For Col. Emilio Ponce, the top field commander in the Salvadorean Army, ruling the hearts and minds of these harden civilians is just as important and challenging as carrying out his new tactics for a more aggressive, mobile fighting force.

``Civilians are very closed to our troops,'' Colonel Ponce conceded on Wednesday, when he spoke with reporters in a house where he said rebel commanders once plotted their attacks. ``But that's our function in our operation: to change the attitude and conduct of civilians toward the armed forces.''

Civic action has long been a key element in the Army's developing counterinsurgency strategy to end the stalemated eight-year war. Both the Salvadorean Army's National Plan and its US-designed successor, United to Reconstruct, pushed Vietnam-style civic action that uses the promise of development projects to win over the civilian population.

But now the Army says it is doing more than just handing out supplies and promises. In several villages it is trying to replace left-leaning community groups with a heavy military presence and new organizations to funnel economic aid.

Indeed, civic action has become the weapon of choice for Colonel Ponce, a shrewd officer who all but confirmed his likely promotion to Army chief of staff by the end of the year.

Ponce leads a powerful group of officers known as the ``Tandona'' or ``big class.'' These officers graduated from the military academy in 1966, in the largest single class ever, making them a tight clique with extra clout as they move up the promotional ladder. In the June 30 shake-up of the military high command, many of his classmates and followers rose to significant command positions, thus paving the way for him to take firmer control over the conduct of the war.

The enigmatic mustachioed colonel is said by diplomats to be unhappy with both the conduct of the war and the civilian government. On Wednesday, he called for ``more energy, more vigor'' in offensive operations. Even now, Ponce is trying to harness all aspects of guerrilla warfare in his current campaign against the FMLN's largest and toughest faction, the Popular Revolutionary Army (ERP).

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Mirroring the rebels' recent shift in strategy, Ponce has streamlined Third Brigade forces into units no larger than 15 people. Night patrols, which he says can surprise the enemy and avoid temporary guerrilla land mines, now make up 45 percent of his troops, up from 5 percent last year.

Instead of inflicting as many casualties as possible, Ponce's forces are now targeting rebel leaders in order to destabilize the FMLN's military structure since Phase 1 of the latest operation began July 14. Ponce says his troops have killed 11 guerrillas - three of them commanders. (During the same period, the Army reported three dead and 11 wounded.)

But without sustained civic action, Ponce is convinced neither side will win the war. ``If we only continue operating militarily, the conflict would never end. The effects of such a complex war can't be measured only in deaths. ... In this kind of war, the victor is the side that has the support of the civilian population.''

Ponce's push for civic action comes after a sharply critical report on the war was released by four lieutenant colonels in the US Army on March 22. ``The Salvadoreans have yet to devise a persuasive formula for winning the war,'' the US colonels write, calling for a greater emphasis on civic action and psychological operations. ``Salvadoreans are using conventional tactics to fight an unconventional war.''

So far, it's not clear how well Ponce's unconventional tactics can function in Morazan Province, where the rebels have had an almost permanent presence.

In Perqu'in, where freshly crossed-out FMLN slogans attest to the town's guerrilla sympathies, such civic action may prove difficult. Just a few months ago, one guerrilla commander Joaqu'in Villalobos held a secret press conference here. Journalists witnessed a livelier town filled with rebel supporters. But on the steps of the house where the guerrillas transmitted clandestine radio broadcasts of Radio Venceremos, a woman and her two children watch the Army troops in numbed silence.

Even the newly arrived soldiers say they are uncomfortable mingling with the civilians. ``I don't like it,'' says one 30-year old lieutenant who has been in the Army for 13 years. ``I was trained to be a fighter, not a politician.''

In other villages, like San Antonio nestled in the mountains 15 miles southeast of Perqu'in, the scene is very distinct. In the past month here, the Army has established its own community organization to help resolve the villages' complaints and requests.

Unlike the frightened silence of Perqu'in, children and women in San Antonio race out to greet Ponce and the incoming helicopters. The village men, mostly weathered farmers in white sombreros, wait patiently for the colonel at the edge of town.

In a community meeting, staged in part for visiting journalists, Ponce listens to the peoples' emotional petitions and promises that the Army will do all it can to resolve their many problems.

``We are happy they are here,'' says Irma Romero, a 48-year-old seamstress, who owns and rents most of the rocky farmland around San Antonio. Relaxing in her dark, dirt-floored living room in an imitation Ralph Lauren polo shirt, Mrs. Romero explains that most of the families who pay her a few dollars a year do not harvest enough crops to earn a living. So whatever outside assistance is welcome.

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