The Air Force has issued accounting instructions to personnel involved in two major exercises in Central America during the current fiscal year, according to an internal Air Force document.
The document, which provides accounting codes for personnel who are deployed on Big Pine 3 or Granadero 2, appears to conflict with Pentagon statements last week that such exercises had not even reached the planning stage within the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that the Air Force document shows that such exercises are being contemplated but not that they have been finally approved.
The Pentagon also took issue with two other assertions in a recent Washington Post report on future Central American exercises.
U.S. soldiers will not exercise "along" the Honduran-Salvadoran border, as that report said, but will respect at least a five-mile buffer zone at all times, Defense Department officials said.
In addition, the Pentagon said that an imminent U.S.-Salvadoran exercise called King's Guard will not involve U.S. ground forces, as the report implied, but will be a naval exercise aimed at stopping arms traffic to Salvadoran rebels.
The Post report said the King's Guard "maneuvers will send U.S. forces into El Salvador." A small contingent of U.S. military personnel will be deployed to El Salvador for "command and control" purposes only, Pentagon officials said.
"It may be necessary to have a very small number of U.S. military ashore in El Salvador," a Pentagon spokesman said. "At any one time, the number is not likely to exceed a dozen."
Both major maneuvers would build on large-scale exercises conducted in Honduras last year, known as Big Pine 2 and Granadero 1, that involved as many as 5,000 troops at a time, officials said.
Since last spring, the Pentagon has kept about 1,000 troops in that strategically located Central American country but has conducted only small maneuvers.
Administration officials have called this a deliberate effort to keep the maneuvers out of the news during the presidential election.
Pentagon officials said yesterday that the Air Force accounting list shows that the Joint Chiefs tentatively scheduled the maneuvers, but they said that final approval would depend on Honduran support and other factors.
"The Air Force bulletin does not represent a complete exercise list," Cmdr. Ron Wildermuth, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs, said. "We announce exercises as they occur. We do not comment on future individual exercises."
He declined to comment further.
The Air Force list, which includes planned Joint Chiefs of Staff exercises around the world, also mentions Bigger Focus 84, which officials have said is an umbrella name for a series of counterinsurgency exercises in Honduras involving Rangers and other U.S. troops.
U.S. officials have said that all the coming exercises -- Big Pine 3, Granadero 2, Bigger Focus 84, King's Guard and perhaps others -- are intended to bolster the Salvadoran government in its war against leftist guerrillas and to pressure the Sandinista government of Nicaragua to stop aiding those guerrillas.
Nicaragua has denied that it sends arms to the guerrillas, as the administration maintains.
The CIA has trained and funded a force of Nicaraguan rebels based in Honduras and attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government.
Critics of the administration's policies in Central America have said that the exercises are used to involve U.S. troops in military missions, such as intelligence gathering, and not just for training.
King's Guard will take place in the Gulf of Fonseca area, where about 50 Marines already have been deployed to operate electronic listening gear and other equipment aimed at Nicaragua.