MANAGUA, NICARAGUA, OCT. 1 -- With a groaning of freshly greased gears and a whirring of conveyor belts, the presses of the opposition La Prensa rolled this afternoon, two hours behind schedule, as the newspaper returned to print after a 15-month shutdown.

"The people triumphed!" read the banner headline of the first edition, referring to the Sandinista government's decision to allow the afternoon daily to reopen free from censorship under the terms of a regional peace plan signed Aug. 7 in Guatemala.

Nicaraguans clamoring to pay the equivalent of five cents for one of the 230,000 copies formed lines outside the building, which is spattered with angry Sandinista graffiti.

La Prensa, although widely recognized as a symbol of the fight for free expression, is reopening with its finances, staff and equipment ravaged by the long suspension, its directors said.

Editor Jaime Chamorro said the paper, which had a circulation of 65,000 when it closed, is going back to work with five reporters and four photographers, a fraction of the news personnel during its heyday in the late '70s. The overall staff was 230 when it closed; it was 75 today.

"All our reporters are outside the country, and we haven't been able to persuade them to come back," Chamorro said. "They don't believe the Sandinistas will keep their word." He arrived Tuesday after a year in the United States, where he was recuperating from brain surgery.

One reporter who showed up for work today, veteran sports writer Roberto Sanchez, said he will be the section's entire staff, responsible for all reporting and editing.

The receiver for wire photos failed to work, General Manager Carlos Holmann said, and half of the electronic typesetting machines are on the blink.

Holmann said the paper sold its fleet of delivery vehicles to sustain a skeletal staff during the hiatus. Today, the family cars of Holmann and publisher Violeta Chamorro were used to help deliver papers.

In a speech last night, President Daniel Ortega explained the reopening of La Prensa and other opposition media to a gathering of pro-government professionals: "The Sandinista leadership recognizes the reality of our country is that an old way of thinking -- one that says we should be dominated by the United States and accept monopoly capitalism -- still exists in our country. We can't wipe it out, so we have to fight it using the rights of free expression."

{La Prensa's opening editorial, an attack on the country's Marxist government, said in part, "We Nicaraguans will never accept tyranny in any form," Reuter reported. "Six years of war have brought the country to its knees and the political errors and deviations of the (ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front) which plunged this country into war are being paid for every day with the hunger of the people."}

The government, which has a monopoly in newsprint, sold La Prensa 300 tons, enough to print a 12-page edition for two months, Holmann said. After that, the situation is unclear.

La Prensa normally competes for a limited supply of newsprint with the two government-controlled dailies, Barricada and El Nuevo Diario.

Barricada doubled its number of pages after La Prensa was closed June 26, 1986, in response to the vote in the House of Representatives for $100 million in aid for the U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras. But Barricada editor Carlos Chamorro, who is also Violeta Chamorro's son, said he has no plans to reduce the size of his paper, which sells 120,000 issues a day.

Greeting the return of La Prensa as "an opportunity to help stabilize Nicaragua politically," Carlos Chamorro said he hopes it will pursue a "nationalist" editorial line and not be "an echo of U.S. policy."

La Prensa was closed after it was revealed that the paper had received a $100,000 donation in materials from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy, a creation of Congress.

Msgr. Bismarck Carballo, the director of Catholic Radio, said it will resume broadcasting at midday Friday with a brief message from Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and a call-in show to allow Nicaraguans to speak their minds on topics of their choice.

Carballo said the station, the church's official voice in Nicaragua, also will operate with a limited staff and transmission power compared to the period before it was closed Jan. 2, 1986. Its mobile reporting unit was confiscated by the government in 1985 and has not been returned, he said.

Wilbur Landrey, chairman of a commission on press freedom of the Inter-American Press Association, was in Managua today to hail the return of La Prensa and to call for other opposition radios and newspapers to reopen.