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Peru Faces Disadvantages In Fighting With Ecuador

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NESTOR, a 19-year-old Peruvian soldier, sits in the shade of a hut on the edge of the narrow, dirt airstrip of Valor, Peru, cradling his AK-47. With other fellow conscripts, he is waiting to be flown into the dense tropical jungle where his orders are to join the assault on the Tiwinza base, currently under Ecuadoran control.

``I've seen combat before ... but this is different,'' he says.

In the past two weeks, since the outbreak of hostilities and mutual accusations of aggression, the long-standing Peru-Ecuador border conflict has escalated abruptly. Neither side has declared war, but there are now thousands of troops in the 130 square-mile zone, as fighting grows worse. Diplomatic negotiations are deadlocked.

Visiting the wounded in the combat zone on Wednesday, Peru's President Alberto Fujimori said national morale was high. He announced that 30 Peruvian soldiers and six pilots had died, but ``the short-term objective of dislodging Ecuadoran troops from Peruvian territory is imminent,'' he claimed. But unconfirmed reports in Peru say 150 soldiers have died on both sides in the assuault on Tiwinza alone.

It is also becoming increasingly clear that the Ecuadoreans are well-established and better prepared in the disputed area. Many of their positions are surrounded by minefields, and deeply entrenched Ecuadoran troops can pick off Peruvian troops.

Peru's military chiefs continue to pull reinforcements into the zone. For the past week, the Bagua airstrip has throbbed with activity as Antonov transport planes ferry supplies and ammunition from Lima and troops from all of the country. As the planes land, soldiers jump out, chanting slogans denouncing Ecuadoran ``treachery.'' And as casualties rose, more tents and beds were unloaded.

At Bagua, women anxiously wait for news of their loved ones. ``How have we got into such a deep conflict?'' asks Amelia Vives. ``Every year there are skirmishes ... but never anything like this. I don't understand.'' Ms. Vives's puzzlement is shared by most outsiders.

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