Salvadoran officials said today they are expecting a major victory in one of the few all-out battles of the Salvadoran civil war.
After eight days of intense fighting on the slopes of Guazapa Volcano, with about 2,000 government troops committed in an effort to wipe out several hundred well-entrenched guerrillas, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia, El Salvador's minister of defense, said the Army had suffered nine dead and "23 or 24" wounded. He said 122 guerrilla dead had been counted.
Garcia also said some prisoners had been taken, but would not say how many.
The defense minister told reporters at the military base here today, as he attended a celebration of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Rapid Reaction Battalion's first anniversary, that the 400 to 600 guerrillas on Guazapa Volcano "are now completely surrounded."
However, an NBC television crew which managed to reach the nearby town of Suchitoto, filmed as many as 1,000 troops descending from the mountain this morning. An NBC reporter said that the soldiers and several of the officers told him that they were no longer needed on the mountainside because there were probably only 50 or 60 guerrillas left in the area.
In the past, when guerrillas have been attacked by government troops they left the area under attack, then returned after the Army had withdrawn.
Garcia said Guazapa "was a very important concentration of subversion," and an officer of the special battalion said intelligence reports indicated the guerrillas had been grouping their forces for a major attack to undermine elections scheduled later this month.
Garcia said the entire population within the guerrilla-held territory is committed to the guerrilla cause and no one there can be considered a civilian.
"There are only subversives there," said Garcia, "nothing more, although they may be of different 'calibers'."
Reporters who visited the Guazapa guerrilla stronghold shortly before the government offensive began saw many children and women living on the slopes of the volcano around the settlement of Palo Grande. Guerrilla leaders there said their forces would not simply abandon their positions as they sometimes have done when confronted with other large-scale Army operations.
But it was clear that the guerrillas were ready to pull out of some of their territory if they felt the pressure was too great, as they did during the last major government operation around Guazapa Volcano in August.
At that time, according to Ernesto Dreyfus, one of the guerrilla officers, the insurgents lost 10 combatants, 23 were wounded, and 96 civilians were killed in an unsuccessful evacuation attempt. Dreyfus said the government suffered more than 200 casualties, comprising both dead and wounded, in that same campaign.
Reporters have been barred from access to even the rear combat zones during the current campaign, but one American photographer who managed to reach the front lines around the village of Aguacayo yesterday said that in the course of the night the guerrillas could be heard evacuating the area.
The photographer, who asked that his name not be published, said that the company of regular Army troops he encountered was pinned down by a force of insurgents they estimated at no more than 50 men while the rest of the insurgents were believed to be pulling out of the area around the volcano.
The government forces had captured the heights of the Guazapa Volcano at a site called El Roblar last year and have kept their garrison of 100 or more men there supplied by using helicopters. When the current offensive began, the size of that garrison was greatly increased, and the main government attack force descended to the guerrilla positions from the top of the mountain.
"This," said Garcia, "they never expected."
Most guerrilla defenses were oriented toward an attack by troops coming up the hill, but the insurgents were aware that a government push was on its way and told reporters about it two days before it began.
Meanwhile, the government forces attempted to encircle the guerrilla positions and cut off retreat. The photographer, who returned to San Salvador today, said the circle is now drawn tightly near the base of the mountain, but Army forces apparently were not able to shut off all escape routes and some soldiers believe the main guerrilla force has already made its way north into the guerrilla strongholds of Chalatenango and Cabanas.
The photographer also said he was told by field commanders that as many as 17 government troops have been killed, and the soldiers on the front line are only now being relieved after more than a week of combat.
Garcia made his announcement before a crowd of dignitaries, including U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton and visiting U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), to commemorate the first anniversary here of the Atlacatl Battalion trained by American Green Berets as the first of what will soon be three such units.
Only two of the battalion's seven companies were in attendance, however. Four of them are in action around Guazapa.