The Nicaraguan Army staged last week's large-scale raid against anti-Sandinista rebel bases in Honduras in part to punish the Honduran government for recently having relaxed restrictions on the rebels' activities there, Nicaraguan officials and foreign diplomats report.
In early March Honduras allowed the rebels, who are known as contras, to resume using several infiltration routes into Nicaragua that were prohibited since late last year, these sources said. The routes allow the contras to operate closer to major population centers in Nicaragua.
A strong reaction by the Reagan administration, which was ultimately able to persuade the Hondurans to protest publicly about the raid, appears to have surprised the Sandinistas, and probably will make them more cautious about staging similar incursions, according to several diplomats here.
The U.S. response will be "a short-term deterrent for more incursions," a high-ranking envoy said.
The Sandinista Army launched the incursion 11 days ago because of circumstances at the time and not because of a new policy of ignoring the Nicaraguan-Honduran border altogether, Nicaraguan officials and foreign diplomats said. They said Nicaragua was unlikely to stage similar raids on a regular basis because such attacks would risk triggering a conflict with Honduran and U.S. forces.
"I don't believe that this is going to be a systematic policy," a Nicaraguan military source said.
A Foreign Ministry official added, "We're not foolish enough to give the Reagan administration the pretext it requires to launch a direct strike against us."
But the Nicaraguan government's justification for the raid, outlined by President Daniel Ortega at a news conference Friday, provided the Sandinistas with a ready-made explanation if they chose to cross the border in force again. Ortega said that Honduras had given up sovereignty over part of its territory along the border by permitting the contras to have camps there.
"If they the Sandinistas think that they can get away with it, I'm sure they'd do it again," the senior diplomat said.
The Foreign Ministry official said "self-defense is something that we can't give one inch on. The point that is going to be proved is that this no-man's-land along the border is not going to be safe for the contras."
The allegedly reactivated routes, about 75 miles west of the contras' main base camps where the incursion took place, allow the contras to enter Nicaragua much closer to major population centers in this country's northern provinces of Nueva Segovia, Madriz and Esteli. Nicaragua complained privately to Honduras about the Hondurans' policy shift in mid-March but were not satisfied with the response, according to knowledgeable sources.
The Honduran government also has permitted the United States to resume full deliveries of nonlethal aid to the contras after a four-month suspension, according to diplomats in the region. The change took place after President Jose Azcona took office in Honduras in late January and after replacement of the Honduran armed forces' commander-in-chief a few days later.
"The Hondurans clearly have cooperated more with the contras since Azcona came to power," a Nicaraguan official said in explaining the motives for the raid.
The Sandinistas apparently expected that the incursion would draw little attention because previous raids of smaller scale had passed relatively unnoticed. The Nicaraguan Army wanted to hit the contras while their guard was down at the start of the Easter week holiday, and before arrival of U.S. military aid that Congress is expected to approve, Nicaraguan officials said.
Both Nicaraguan and foreign officials here said that the Nicaraguan Army has staged frequent incursions into a wedge-shaped portion of Honduras, called "the Salient," where the contras have their main base camps, a training center and a hospital. The Salient, which is the eastern end of the Honduran province of El Paraiso, was the area where three Sandinista Army columns crossed the border in force on March 22.
"We began last year to attack the contras in their principal bases in our territory and in the border territory," a Nicaraguan official said.
Several hundred Sandinista troops attacked what was then the contras' main base camp at Las Vegas, about seven miles inside Honduras, last May. Small Sandinista Army units have been staging patrols and laying mines just inside Honduras in the Salient virtually every day this year, diplomats said.
"It's been practically institutionalized in 1986," one envoy said. The recent incursion was only "marginally new in terms of size and depth," he added.
The Hondurans' lack of response to previous incursions apparently encouraged the Sandinistas to think that they could enter Honduras without causing a political uproar. Senior diplomatic sources, apparently citing intelligence data, said that there was "hard evidence" that the Nicaraguans and their Cuban advisers "have been emboldened by the Hondurans' failure to react" in the past.
Until March, the Honduran armed forces had forced the contras to infiltrate into Nicaragua only from the Salient itself, or from positions northeast of there in rugged, nearly deserted mountains. The Hondurans apparently adopted this policy to avoid provoking border incidents.
On or about March 10, however, 1,000 or more contras began to infiltrate into Nicaragua via the new routes, starting in Honduras in western El Paraiso province and in Choluteca province farther to the southwest, Nicaraguan officials and foreign diplomats said.
In mid-March these contras staged raids on a tobacco farm and an electric station in areas where the contras had not been a signficant presence since last summer, and the Nicaraguan Army moved reinforcements to the border in response. About a week later, the Sandinistas began the large-scale incursion into the Salient itself.