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Government Blames Contras For Attack That Killed U.S. Nun

January 3, 1990

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ A spokesman for the Contra rebels today dismissed government allegations the U.S.-backed rebels were responsible for an ambush that killed two nuns, including an American, and injured an American bishop.

The body of Sister Maureen Courtney, of Milwaukee, arrived in Managua on Tuesday night before being flown to the United States.

The attack occurred Monday in a remote area of Zelaya province, 250 miles northeast of Managua, as Sister Courtney and three other church workers drove in a church pickup truck from the town of Rosita to Puerto Cabezas.

″I only know that a mine went off or a grenade and there was heavy shooting afterward,″ said Bishop Pablo Schmitz of Fond du Lac, Wis. ″We identified ourselves, but nobody came to the pickup.″

Schmitz, the auxiliary bishop of the port city of Bluefields, told reporters ″it was very dark outside″ when the attack occurred, so he could not identify the assailants.

Church officials said it was possible the pickup may have hit a land mine, but Schmitz also suffered a gunshot wound to the left arm. Sister Francisca Colomer, 24, of Nicaragua, suffered wounds in the face and body. Both were hospitalized in Managua and were expected to survive.

Sister Courtney, 45, was of the Sisters of St. Agnes order of Fond du Lac and had been doing missionary work in Nicaragua 15 years. She was believed to be the first American killed in the 9-year-old civil war since Contras killed 27-year-old engineer Benjamin Linder, of Portland, Ore., in April 1987.

The slain Nicaraguan nun was identified as Sister Teresa Rosales, of Santa Marta.

The incident comes at a time of tense U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, which took a turn for the worse after the American invasion of Panama and U.S. soldiers’ illegal search of the Nicaraguan ambassador’s residence.

Contra military leader Enrique Bermudez said in Miami this morning that he doubted Contras were responsible for the ambush.

″We have not received any report from patrols of that kind of action,″ he said in a telephone interview. ″These type of accusations are normally made by the Sandinistas in order to (wage a) publicity campaign against us.″

He said Contras did not have a presence in the area where the attack occurred.

However, the regional deputy police commander, Julio Rugama, said about 60 Contra rebels operate in the region and were responsible for the attack.

The New York Times today quoted Lt. Col. Juan Lorenzo Santana as saying the church workers were apparently attacked because they came upon a group of Contras planting a mine in the road.

And Jaime Arauz, one of two peasants questioned by Sandinista officials, told reporters he and the other peasant were kidnapped by a group of rebels who told them they were waiting to ambush an army convoy.

The government radio Voz de Nicaragua said the attackers were ″Contra forces encouraged by the invasion of U.S. troops in Panama.″

U.S. soldiers invaded Panama on Dec. 20 and ousted the regime of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, then surrounded the Nicaraguan Embassy in case Noriega decided to seek refuge there.

Later that week, U.S. soldiers searched the Panama City residence of Nicaragua’s ambassador, Antenor Ferrey. Washington admitted the search of the diplomatic premises was a mistake. Nicaragua expelled 20 American diplomats from Managua in retaliation.

The area where the attack occurred is a stronghold of the Miskito Indians, who for years have mounted sporadic military operations against the Sandinistas, independent of the Contras.

Norma Venkler, a classmate of Maureen Courtney in the 1960s at Divine Savior Holy Angels High School in Milwaukee, said her friend was setting up an education system for the Miskito Indians.

Frances Courtney, Sister Courtney’s mother, told journalists in Wauwatosa, Wis., that her daughter had been in Nicaragua for 15 years.

″She was supposed to celebrate her 25th jubilee in the order this December,″ the mother said. ″She was just a lovely little girl.″

Sister Jean Steffes, mother superior for the Sisters of St. Agnes, said in Wisconsin that it was the first time members of her order were killed doing missionary work.

Schmitz went to Nicaragua as a missionary in 1972 and was ordained auxiliary bishop in 1984 and belonged to the Capuchin order of the Franciscans, according to Brother Larry La Cross, a Capuchin spokesman in Detroit.

About 35 Capuchin missionaries work in Nicaragua.

The U.S.-backed Contras began their fight against the Nicaraguan government in 1981, saying the Sandinistas had betrayed the popular revolution that toppled Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

A fragile cease-fire ended on Nov. 1, 1988, and fighting has been sporadic since. U.S. military aid to the Contras ran out in February 1988, but Congress has continued to provide non-lethal aid.

President Bush has said he wants to keep the Contras intact to ensure that the Sandinistas remain true to their promise of free elections on Feb. 25.

The radio said President Daniel Ortega visited the victims Tuesday night to express his condolences.

Update hourly