For the first time in six years of civil war, thousands of refugees have returned this year on their own initiative to live in their war-battered villages, sparking an intense political contest between government and rebel forces vying to control the new movement.

The mounting pressure by refugees to leave camps and settlements in San Salvador and other urban centers to go home comes as the war between leftist guerrillas and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran Army has shifted dramatically away from regular military clashes, toward primarily political efforts in the most remote hamlets to win the allegiance of the population.

The unexpected appearance of thousands of civilians in the guerrilla-dominated hills in northern El Salvador has forced the Salvadoran Air Force to cut back its bombing raids by 30 percent in the last four months, according to one high-ranking military officer.

"They are reversing the trend of the first years of the war, moving back from cities to towns, then from towns to hamlets," a U.S. official familiar with refugee affairs in the country said.

In recent incidents marking the refugee conflict, Ciriaco Joaquin Rodriguez, a director of a refugee organization, was shot through the arm and seized in a San Salvador slum last Thursday by Army soldiers dressed as civilians, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas confirmed in a homily today. Rodriguez is being held in an Army barracks at San Juan Opico, near the capital.

Rodriguez's group, the National Coordinating Group for Repopulation, organized the July 15 return of several hundred refugees to a cooperative farm in this thickly overgrown hamlet, 40 miles north of the capital.

On July 17 the government deported 23 foreign religious activists, including 19 Americans, who sought to accompany the refugees to San Antonio el Barillo. Friday, the military called in at least two other American religious volunteers working with refugees in northern Chalatenango province to review their visas.

In the first six months of this year, Salvadoran and U.S. officials monitoring an estimated 400,000 Salvadorans who have been displaced by the war said they found a clear trend among the poorest refugees to head back to their places of origin.

The refugees quietly abandoned their temporary city lodgings and shunned food handouts from humanitarian agencies even though there was little sign that the hostilities had abated in their villages, the officials said.

"It caught us completely by surprise," commented one U.S. official who works with refugees in El Salvador.

Salvadoran and U.S. military strategists believe the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) have launched a plan of their own this year to repopulate deserted forests in their northern strongholds. They contend the rebels have called some refugees back to El Salvador from camps in Honduras.

Meanwhile, early this year the Salvadoran military announced an ambitious plan, named "United For Reconstruction," which calls for the repopulation under Army supervision of key communities in most of El Salvador's 14 provinces.

"The government is trying to keep up with the guerrillas and get ahead of them," said one western diplomat.

Under the plan, the armed forces will conduct simultaneous military sweeps in many provinces to clear the way to bring back civilian inhabitants. The returned residents would quickly form village civil defense units to fend off rebel incursions.

However the Army has yet to resettle any communities under the program because planned assistance from several civilian ministries has not materialized, a senior Salvadoran military officer said.

Separate from these competing campaigns, and under pressure from them, are resettlement efforts by refugees who said they seek to remain independent of either of the warring forces.

"Our art is hard work," said Valentin Landaverde, 43, a leader of the cooperative in San Antonio el Barillo. "We don't want anybody's military presence here."

About 65 families are camped out in the high, insect-infested grasses around a cement floor, the only structure remaining of their corn-growing cooperative which was burned down in 1981 by government militias hunting guerrillas. The families, including more than 200 children, have fashioned hot, leaky huts from sheets of corrugated metal donated by Salvadoran and U.S. churches.

Almost all the refugees here were forcibly evacuated from the same spot during "Operation Phoenix," a huge Army sweep which began Jan. 10 and cleared most guerrilla positions and supporters from Guazapa volcano, a longtime rebel fortress in central El Salvador.

Maria Menjivar, 50, said she spent 12 terrifying days without food with her small children in an underground hide-out before Army troops found her Jan. 22.

She said the army promised she could return to her village, a pledge she has never forgotten.

"The camps are intolerable," said refugee Ruben Guardado, 58. "We were like parakeets in a cage, eating from charity."

Another cooperative leader, Dimas Casco Herrera, 35, said the group feels more secure now because he believes they have secured a promise from the Army chief of staff, Gen. Adolfo Onecifero Blandon, that he would refrain from ordering bombing runs over the area.

Casco Herrera claimed the resettlement was not organized by any political group.

His view was not shared by Lt. Col. Orlando Carranza, commander of more than 200 Ramon Belloso Battalion troops who have been standing security around the cooperative since July 17.

"If they are coming to settle just to work, that favors the Army," Carranza said. "If they are coming to live here as part of an outside plan, that's not good for us."

Carranza said he believed the refugees had been ordered here by the rebels in an effort to "shatter the success" of Operation Phoenix.

In the capital, Asisclo Menjivar, 30, a displaced fisherman who is one of 12 directors of the National Coordinating Group, said the organization has ties to left-leaning human rights groups but no link to the rebels, "as far as I know."