URGENT Ortega Postpones Decision on Extending Truce; Fighting Reported
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ President Daniel Ortega postponed until Wednesday a decision on whether to end a 19-month-old truce with U.S.-backed Contras, a government official said.
A spokesman at the president’s office said an evening news conference to announce a decision was put off because Ortega was still meeting with senior defense and interior ministry officials, ″and this meeting will last a long time.
″We’ll have the announcement very early Wednesday,″ she said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
President Bush has left open the possibility that he would seek military aid to the Contras if Ortega went ahead with his plans to break the truce.
Ortega traveled Tuesday with an American diplomat to a site where Ortega said a rebel attack the night before left four people dead and five wounded.
Ortega disrupted a summit last week by threatening to end a truce with the Contras. He cited rebel attacks as a major reason.
Presidential spokesman Maria Antonia Cuadra told The Associated Press Ortega would probably make his truce decision announcement from San Miguelito, the town where the government claims a Contra attack took place Monday night.
John Leonard, the U.S. charge d’affairs, was invited to accompany Ortega to the site, but Leonard sent embassy political adviser Valentin Martinez instead, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mercedes Borge said.
Ortega and Martinez, who is fluent in Spanish, spoke privately for about five minutes at the farm cooperative that was allegedly attacked near San Miguelito, about 200 miles southeast of Managua on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Ms. Borge said.
The two traveled by helicopter accompanied by Defense Minister Humberto Ortega - the president’s brother - and Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto, Interior Minister Tomas Borge and officials from the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
The leftist Sandinista government and Contra leaders agreed to a truce in March 1988. Nicaragua has extended it on a monthly basis since, but low-level fighting continued. The latest extension expired Tuesday.
On Friday, Ortega told a meeting of 17 Western hemisphere leaders in San Jose, Costa Rica, he would end the truce. The heads of state, including Bush, had assembled to honor the 100th anniversary of Costa Rican democracy.
Ortega said his decision was prompted by increasing Contra attacks in the past three weeks and a rebel ambush earlier in the week that killed 18 people. Many Contra fighters have moved to Nicaragua from camps in neighboring Honduras in the three months since a Central American peace agreement was signed Aug. 7.
Reaction in San Jose was so negative Ortega backed off and said there were ways the truce could be extended. He left the meeting abruptly Saturday.
After Ortega’s announcement, Bush called him ″a little man″ and an ″unwanted animal at a garden party.″
Contra leader Enrique Bermudez said Tuesday the Nicaraguan army already had broken the truce.
″The Sandinistas have been waging a silent war against our forces,″ he said in an interview in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras. ″Now they are trying to make that war public because they are facing defeat in the Feb. 25 presidential elections.″
The Contras say they do not initiate attacks and act only in self-defense.
Barricada, the Sandinista party newspaper, quoted military leaders in north central Matagalpa province Tuesday as saying soldiers were ready ″to respond to the latest terrorist expressions″ of the Contras, estimated to number 1,200 in that area.
It quoted Deputy Commander Orlando Talavera, regional security chief, as saying 18 Contras had been killed in the area since Friday.
In San Jose on Friday, Presidents Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela reminded Ortega the peace plan signed by five Central American presidents Aug. 7 provided mechanisms for resolving disputes.
Provisions of the plan include disbanding the Contras by early December in return for Ortega’s pledge the Nicaraguan elections Feb. 25 will be free and fair.
Congress allows only non-lethal aid to the Contras, but Bush said Tuesday he might seek renewed military aid if the civil war resumed.
″I would re-evaluate this situation in a minute if the cease-fire is broken,″ he told a news conference in Washington.
Both the United States and Contra leaders want to keep the rebels intact as a fighting force to make sure Ortega keeps his promise about the elections. Congress suspended military aid to the Contras in February 1988.
On Monday, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said threats by Ortega to suspend the truce might be a prelude to cancellation of the elections for a president and national legislature.
In an interview the same day with NBC News, Ortega said: ″The elections are taking place in Nicaragua, period. With Contra or without Contra they are going to take place, definitely. With war or no war, that is, elections are taking place.″
His government says 700 people have been killed and more than 1,000 wounded in rebel attacks since the truce was agreed upon in March 1988.