Honduran President Jose Azcona denied tonight that his government had been pressured into responding to last month's Nicaraguan border raid, but he dodged the issue of whether the United States had exaggerated the seriousness of the incursion.
Azcona, in a nationally broadcast radio speech, also failed to address specifically the issue of whether his government had requested $20 million of emergency military aid that the U.S. government granted Honduras in response to the Nicaraguan attack on bases in southern Honduras of anti-Sandinista rebels, known as contras.
It seemed likely that Azcona's speech would only partially put to rest a controversy triggered by a senior Honduran official, who, in remarks published yesterday, criticized U.S. handling of the border incident.
The Honduran official said that the United States pressured Honduras to treat the incident as a major crisis, urged Honduras to ask for the $20 million of aid, and deliberately exaggerated the raid's importance to persuade Congress to approve aid for the contras. U.S. and Honduran media reports have indicated that the official, who spoke on the condition that he remain anonymous, was Foreign Minister Carlos Lopez Contreras.
The State Department and the White House denied the Honduran official's assertions, and U.S. Ambassador John Arthur Ferch asked Azcona yesterday for a "clarification." U.S. officials said this afternoon that Azcona's speech would serve as that clarification.
Azcona said his government acted "without internal or external pressures" in responding to the raid, which began on March 22, and to a series of much smaller Nicaraguan incursions that he said began on March 11.
Azcona added: "We have not minimized the incidents on our border with Nicaragua, but neither have we magnified them."
A U.S. official, contacted by telephone in Tegucigalpa, expressed satisfaction that Azcona "made clear that Honduras was acting on its own" in responding to the border raid. "We're not unhappy with this outcome," he said.
But a well-placed source, who declined to be identified, acknowledged that the United States was less than "100 percent joyful" with Azcona's address.
Both U.S. and Honduran officials had said privately before this week that the U.S. government pressed Honduras to publicize the Nicaraguan raid, and that the United States had initiated the proposal that Honduras ask for $20 million of emergency aid.
Azcona said Honduras had asked the United States for the airlift and "whatever other aid may have been necessary," but he did not refer directly to the $20 million of assistance.
Much of Azcona's radio address was devoted to a repetition of previous Honduran criticisms of Nicaragua's Sandinista government for restricting political pluralism.