An abandoned Potomac residence that was once a haven for the children of Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte is now the focus of a battle between a Montgomery County community and the government of El Salvador.

The house, located on several acres at 11009 Stanmore Dr. in Potomac Falls, was purchased in the early 1970s as a diplomatic residence. The former Salvadoran ambassador, Pablo Alvergue, occupied the house. After the kidnaping of Duarte's daughter, Ines Guadalupe Duarte Duran, in 1985 by rebels seeking to overthrow his government, Duarte sent his two other children to live at the house for a month until Duran was released.

After Alvergue returned to El Salvador last January, the furnished house remained vacant. During the cold winter, the house's pipes froze and its hardwood floors buckled. Ceilings and chandeliers fell, and the walls began to crumble, prompting one civic leader to liken it to a bomb shelter.

Since then, neighbors complain, the house has become a meeting place for area youths, who repeatedly vandalized the house and the remaining furnishings and have even set small fires in it.

On the night of Nov. 14, 10 juveniles were arrested at the house and charged with trespassing. They were later released to their parents, according to George Luddington of the Montgomery County Police.

The abandonment of the house has infuriated some homeowners in the affluent section of Montgomery County. During the summer, several neighbors complained to the Salvadoran Embassy about waist-high grass on the premises. The Potomac Falls Homeowners Association spent $760 to hire a lawn service to improve the property, and a number of neighbors paid a local youth to maintain the yard.

Tom Ondeck, who lives next door to the Salvadoran property, said, "We continue to be very upset about it. We're just astonished {at the disregard for the property}, both from a safety standpoint and an economic standpoint."

Ambassador Ernesto Rivas-Gallont, who replaced Alvergue, acknowledged the Salvadoran government has been slow to take care of the property.

"We are really torn," he said. "I have made my apologies to the neighbors . . . . We didn't have funds earmarked for maintenance of the residence, and we're in the middle of a budget year, so we couldn't afford {repairs}. My government has decided to sell the property as soon as we get legal authorization to sell.

"When dealing with properties of the state, mortgaging a property is not as easy as one might think. We must get authorization from the Council of Ministers, who meet once a month. Hopefully, in their meeting in January, they will give approval."

Rivas-Gallont explained that the property had been unoccupied since he began as ambassador.

"I wanted to be closer to the embassy," he said. "With a war going {on}, a piece of property is at the bottom of the agenda."

Ondeck said that when he spoke with Rivas-Gallont last summer, he was told the house was the most valuable asset outside El Salvador, and its sale had become a political issue because its paper value was much higher than its current value.

Carole Olson, president of the Potomac Falls Homeowners Association, said the neighbors had approached the State Department seeking help in getting the property cleaned up, but had been told there was nothing that the U.S. government could do. The diplomatic bureaucracy has frustrated members of the community and prompted a great deal of anger and resentment.

"I considered having my kids picket {Rivas-Gallont's} house on Wesley Avenue," she said. "We felt the only way to get something done was to embarrass him. I know the ambassador is in a political bind, but I don't undertand why he can't take care of the property. In its prime state, it was worth $700,000 to $800,000. Now it looks like a bomb shelter. {The real issue} is what it represents and how it makes the neighbors feel."