Two hours before curfew a few nignts ago, a National Guard patrol stopped two civilians in a red jeep in the center of Matapalpa. As the pair climbed out, the guards fired their guns point-blank. Witnesses who told of the killing said they had to peel pieced of flesh from nearby walls.

Salvador Amador, 31, one of the two victims, was the 11th member of the Amador family to be killed in less than two years. The son of a prominent family, he was a known opponent of the government run by President Anastasio Somoza, although he had not taken up arms like some of his cousins and many of his countrymen.

His sudden, savage death draws the Amador family one step deeper into the spiral of violence and counterviolence that has gripped Nicaragua for more that a year. These are the ways of a civil struggle against Somoza that seems to pose a continuing threat to his long hold on power.

Although no important battles of the kind that shook this country in its brief September civil war are now being fought, prominent as well as unknown people continue to turn up dead in Nicaragua every day.

Under orders to shoot to kill anyone suspicious, National Guardsmen have killed at least 14 men and boys in the last three days. In addition to the two in Matagalpa, eight were shot in Chinandega and four in the city of Leon.

According to government bulletins, the deaths occurred in "armed confrontations" between the guards and guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Relatives and witnesses in all three cities said the guards executed the men in cold blood.

Whatever the truth, the National guard will find it difficult to qualify everyone shot as a potential guerrilla about to attack.

Two weeks ago, one hour before curfew, guards opened fire at a car on a downtown Managua street. The man who climbed out of the bullet-ridden vehicle was Niall Spears, deputy manager of the local branch of the Bank of London and South America. The banker, who escaped with head wounds, was later told he had not obeyed a stop sign.

Last week, in the town of Jinotepe a woman whose kitchen had caught fire ran yelling into the street. Without asking questions, a guard shot her down, according to neighbours who said they saw it happen.

As rumors grow of plans for a new guerrilla offensive and the guard increases its raids, often searching house to house, thousands of families fleeing the country. One such rumor Saturday afternoon caused numerous families in Chinandega, a town where the September war struck hard, to start packing their household goods.The town of Diriamba was half empty during a visit last week, the houses shut with corrugated iron. National Guard units had taken up firing positions all over town.

"You won't find many men under 40 around here," explained a Catholic church worker. "Everyone young is persecuted around here."

Thousands of the rural poor have gathered in refugee camps across the border in Costa Rica, Honduras and Salvador. Costa Rica alone reports that it has more than 10,500 Nicaraguan refugees. The well-to-do are fleeing to Mexico and the United States and outgoing planes these last few weeks have invariably been full.

Last week the U.S. Consulate was processing about 150 visas a day, twice the normal number. More than 350 persons have sought political asylum in local embassies.

In Managua, politicans sleep in different homes at night. The central Intercontinental Hotel is surrounded by road blocks and soldiers have occupied the top floor. A rumor last week that the hotel would be attacked by guerrillas sent an international team of mediators fleeing to their respective embassies.

Whatever the number of people who have expressed sympathy or support to the Sandinista revolutionaries during recent months, many exhuasted and nervous Nicaraguans are hoping desperately that a peaceful solution is now in sight.

The U.S.-organized mediation, believed by many to be aimed at forcing Somoza to resign, is making progress behind the scenes, qualified sources report. But the president, whose family has ruled the country for 42 years, is fighting back with a nation-wide propaganda campaign. And 200 new recruits join the National Guard every week.