Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon arrived here today for talks on possible further arms sales to this Central American nation seeking to modernize its Air Force, the government announced.
Sharon's visit with Honduran leaders including Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the armed forces chief, underlined Israel's growing activities as a diplomatic partner and arms source for Latin American governments beset by leftist insurrections and, in some cases, unable to buy U.S. armaments because of U.S. congressional restrictions.
President Roberto Suazo Cordova's government said only that Sharon's one-day trip here is designed to provide a forum for exchanges of views. Informed comments by diplomats, however, centered on Alvarez's desire to acquire new, more sophisticated warplanes for the Honduran Air Force.
Israel in the past has sold Honduras 12 French-made Super-Mystere fighters grown too old for the ultramodern Israeli Air Force, three Arava military transport craft and a Westwind executive size passenger jet. In addition, Honduran soldiers are equipped with Israeli-made Galil automatic rifles and the highly reputed Uzi submachine gun.
The Mysteres, along with U.S.-supplied F86 Sabrejets and A37 "Dragonfly" trainers, have made the Honduran Air Force into what some experts call the best in Central America. But Alvarez has for some time been shopping for more modern planes to replace the aging Mysteres.
He requested U.S.-made F5 jets during a trip to Washington last February and, according to French sources, Honduran officials have explored the possibility of buying French-made Mirages.
Neither Washington nor Paris has indicated willingness to make such a sale, which would be freighted with political meaning in the light of Honduras' quarrel with neighboring Nicaragua and frequent charges from the Sandinista government there that Honduras is planning to support an invasion by anti-Sandinista irregulars.
Israel, however, has gained a reputation as an arms supplier distant enough from Central American tensions to ignore them in selling weapons to governments that can come up with the cash. It has supplied arms to Guatemala, for example, since 1977 when U.S. arms shipments were suspended following reports of widespread human-rights violations there.
Chile and Argentina, two other countries that Congress has barred from buying U.S. arms because of human rights abuses, are, along with Guatemala, among Israel's best Latin American customers. Israel recently sold 24 U.S.-made A4 Skyhawks to help Argentina rebuild its Air Force from the Falklands defeat and reportedly has agreed to sell 22 Mirages as well.
It also has supplied military equipment to El Salvador, including the Arava transport, and has contracted to sell a dozen Israeli-made Kfir fighters to Ecuador. Recently announced plans to improve the Costa Rican national police force are said to include purchase of Israeli weapons and dispatch of Israeli advisers such as those already reportedly serving in Guatemala and Honduras.
Although precise Israeli military sales figures are classified, the government has announced that arms sales in 1980 totaled $1.2 billion, a third of which came from sales to Argentina and El Salvador. Since then, sales to Central and South America are reported to have escalated.