The United States and Honduras have rescheduled for Feb. 1 a large-scale joint military exercise that will deploy Honduran troops near that nation's tense border with Nicaragua as part of a program "to improve the defense of friendly nations," a Pentagon spokesman said yesterday.
The exercise will involve 4,000 Hondurans and 1,600 U.S. support personnel, making it the largest ever conducted involving the two countries. The estimated cost of U.S. participation is $5 million, said Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Carroll Williams.
The maneuvers, named Ahuas Tara, or Big Pine, are to last six days. Williams said Honduran forces will operate within 10 miles of the Nicaraguan border in the eastern province of Gracias a Dios near the Caribbean coastline. About 10,000 Miskito Indians who have fled Nicaragua are based in refugee camps there.
Originally scheduled for early December, the Big Pine exercises were postponed to avoid increased tension in the region during President Reagan's visit to Honduras and other Latin American countries.
Big Pine has become another point of contention in strained relations between the Reagan administration and the Sandinista government. U.S. and Honduran officials have claimed that Honduras' southern border has been violated repeatedly by Nicaraguan-supported arms traffic destined for leftist insurgents in El Salvador.
The Nicaraguans, meanwhile, have registered numerous protests that exile groups, backed by the CIA and operating out of Honduran sanctuaries, are responsible for several cross-border raids to blow up bridges, ambush Nicaraguan militiamen and disrupt agricultural activities.
A Nicaraguan Embassy official here responded to the Pentagon announcement yesterday by saying it was "not the proper time" for the exercise and that the United States and Honduras should avoid "threats of any type or activities that could increase tension in the region."
Last fall, some U.S. officials described Big Pine as designed in part to intimidate the Sandinista government and affect the rapid buildup of the Nicaragua military with the help of Soviet-made weapons and Cuban military advisers.
"We're not trying to intimidate anyone," Williams said yesterday.
One State Department official said, "You could interpret this way: here you have a young democracy in Honduras threatened by a military buildup . . . . The Hondurans have asked for our support, and we have given it to them."
A Pentagon statement described the objectives of the exercise as "assisting Honduras and developing procedures to defend its territory, testing deployment techniques and exercising logistical support of a field force."
About 900 U.S. military personnel, none of whom are ground combat troops, will be airlifted from the United States to participate in supporting roles, the statement said. Two U.S. Navy troop carriers and two landing craft will be used for coastal exercises. "Army elements will provide mobility for Honduran forces," the statement said.
The Air Force is contributing "three forward-control aircraft" for the operation, according to the statement.
In a smaller, but similar exercise conducted last July, more than three dozen U.S. Air Force C130s were used to transport a 1,000-man Honduran military force from Tegucigalpa, the capital, to a base near Mocoron in the same eastern province.
In another development yesterday, Jose Francisco Cardenal, a prominent exile leader opposed to Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista regime, said in Miami that he and close associates have formed a new political and military group seeking to foment rebellion from inside Nicaragua.
In recent weeks, State Department officials have suggested that most of the exile forces that operated from bases just inside Honduras are attempting to establish more permanent beachheads inside Nicaragua to project an image of growing anti-government activity and support in the Nicaragua countryside.
"You don't run an insurgency from outside the country," one State Department official said yesterday.
Such emphasis on internal revolt instead of external attacks from Honduran bases also represents a shift in strategy, perhaps in response to prodding by U.S. officials, who have encouraged Nicaraguan exiles to form a politically viable alternative to the Sandinista regime.
In Miami, Cardenal said in an interview yesterday that his new exile organization is operating under the name Nicaraguan Insurrectional Front.
A Cardenal associate, Roger Solarzano, said the new group is distinct from exile forces comprised along the northern border of former national guardsman from the regime of Gen. Anastasio Somoza and from anti-Sandinista groups operating from Costa Rica along Nicaragua's southern border.
The southern irregulars are believed connected to Eden Pastora, the disillusioned revolutionary known as "Commander Zero" who left Managua last spring.
Cardenal helped found the former guardsmen's political wing, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, in August, 1981. He split away from the FDN leadership last month, however, during a reorganization depicted at the time as an attempt to rid the group of its image as a front for former national guardsmen discredited under Somoza's dictatorial rule.
Cardenal said the FDN's continued reliance on former guardsmen along the Honduran border remains a major political liability inside Nicaragua. But he asserted that his new group commands the loyalty of "tens of thousands" of supporters centered in the Matagalpa, Leon and Bluefields areas, including an undisclosed number of armed insurgents "living underground like guerrillas."
He suggested that the FDN is underestimating the need to organize such popular support within the country, overrelying on military strikes from outside to topple the 3 1/2-year-old Sandinista government.
"Our mission now is to get the aid necessary, material and otherwise, and organize internal resistance," he said in an interview. "It is an internal thing."