Upset by a series of border attacks by the Nicaraguan Army, the Honduran Army has imposed tough new controls on anti-Sandinista guerrillas operating from bases along the increasingly tense frontier with Nicaragua.
The Honduran moves, carried out during the past two weeks, include Army occupation of the headquarters camp at Las Vegas in El Paraiso province about four miles north of the border, diplomatic sources said. Most guerrilla combatants at Las Vegas and an unknown number of smaller camps have been forced to move to new locations to the northeast and farther inside Honduras, they added.
Attention has focused on the growing border tensions as President Roberto Suazo Cordova prepared for a trip to Washington, where he is to meet with President Reagan. He left here today.
A spokesman for the U.S.-backed rebel organization, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, declined to comment on how the Honduran Army actions will affect the guerrillas' four-year-old struggle to overthrow the Sandinista government in Managua.
Diplomatic observers here noted, however, that the rebel force has benefited from Honduran Army logistics help and the ability to use border bases for rest and resupply since 1982 and 1983, when the CIA expanded it into an irregular army of more than 12,000 men.
The Honduran Army acted after Nicaragua's regular Army shelled and rocketed Honduran areas near several rebel installations earlier this month and, on one occasion, sent a small unit across the border in pursuit of rebel forces, the Honduran government said.
Shelling and rocketing of rebel camps in Honduras has occurred sporadically before. But the recent attacks were described here as larger and more intense, seeming to provoke more concern in the Honduran Army. In addition, the May 10 cross-border raid was the first known to have been carried out by anything more than isolatedNicaraguan Army commandos and the first reported to have inflicted casualties.
Some Hondurans have said privately that the border situation has received more publicity than usual here because of President Suazo Cordova's trip to Washington. Emphasizing the risks incurred by Honduras to help in what essentially remains a U.S. effort will give the president and the armed forces commander, Gen. Walter Lopez, increased leverage in conversations with administration officials and members of Congress, these Hondurans noted.
Honduras has asked for a major increase in U.S. economic and military aid as well as a security treaty guaranteeing U.S. support in the event of hostilities with Nicaragua.
The National Security Council, Honduras' top foreign policy body, said Wednesday that the May 10 Nicaraguan attack killed one Honduran soldier and wounded four others in the Arenales district, which is near Las Vegas. Honduran press reports said some peasants in the area have fled their farms because they fear more shelling.
Some Honduran Army officers have expressed concern in recent months that their support for the insurgents, known as contras or counterrevolutionaries, has increased the likelihood of hostilities with Nicaragua. These concerns have been accentuated by the U.S. Congress' refusal April 23 of an administration request for $14 million more aid for the rebels, leaving Honduras exposed as the insurgency's most visible and concrete backer.
The new controls did not appear to mark an end of Honduran cooperation with the rebels. Rather, they seemed aimed at reducing the cost and dangers along the border and demonstrating the Army's ability to control and protect the frontier area's coffee plantations and farm hamlets.
"Rehabilitation work already is going on in the affected areas to bring the necessary confidence to the Honduran population, which is a victim of the conflict going on in Nicaragua," the National Security Council declared.
The attacks were part of an effort by the Popular Sandinista Army, Nicaragua's regular Army, to repulse guerrillas crossing into Nicaragua after a period early this year in which about 7,000 insurgent fighters stacked up in Las Vegas alone because of ammunition shortages and other supply problems. Rebel leaders said at the end of April that a major reinfiltration had begun by guerrillas supplied with funds obtained from undisclosed sources this spring.
Frank Arana, the rebel spokesman, said insurgent forces had about 80 clashes with Sandinista troops in the first half of May, up sharply from the relatively low number earlier this year.
The Nicaraguan government said last week that Sandinista forces in the same period recorded about 60 clashes in what it described as a broad offensive to push the insurgents back into Honduras and prevent them from penetrating deeply into Nicaragua as they had last year. Up to 4,000 guerrillas have been driven back across the border in recent weeks, the report said.
Apparently reflecting this, a top Honduran official was reported last week to have said that the Honduran Army was "disarming" rebels entering the country in flight from the Sandinistas. The official, Minister of the Presidency Ubodoro Arriaga, later said he had been misunderstood, but reaffirmed the Army's intention to control any Nicaraguans entering Honduras.