Hostage crisis in Nicaragua remains tense, despite mediation efforts

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- A hostage crisis that has deepened Nicaragua's sense of political paralysis dragged on yesterday as rightist former rebels in a northern village and leftist former soldiers here in the capital both refused to free most of the dozens of politicians and others they seized last week.

The tensions appeared to ease somewhat after both groups met with representatives of a special mediation panel and released some of their hostages. Yesterday afternoon, the country's Roman Catholic primate, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, also agreed to the mediators' request that he intervene to help resolve the situation.


But while the pace of those efforts quickened, it also appeared that some mediators' predictions of an imminent solution to the crisis might be premature.

On Sunday and again yesterday afternoon, some mediators said the former rebels, who with U.S. support fought the Sandinista government in the 1980s, had dropped their most politically sensitive demand: that President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro dismiss Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra as her defense minister. Hoping to preserve her ability to govern with the Sandinista Front in opposition, Mrs. Chamorro left General Ortega in control of the armed forces when she won the presidency, defeating his brother, Daniel, in elections in February 1990.


Yet after releasing 20 of the 38 hostages he was believed to have been holding on Sunday night, the leader of the former contras, Jose Angel Talavera, said he would not be satisfied by government promises to hear his other complaints and not prosecute his men.

The captives' freedom depends on "the question of Humberto Ortega," Mr. Talavera, a 32-year-old former guerrilla known as "The Jackal," told reporters in the remote village of El Zungano, about 175 miles north of Managua.

The kidnappings come only four weeks after a force of about 150 disgruntled former Sandinista soldiers and former rebels pressing common demands for land, farm credits, and other benefits promised them after the country's eight-year civil war attacked the northwestern city of Esteli. General Ortega ordered a fierce counterattack and more than 40 people were reported killed, scores more wounded.

The hostage-takings, while once again setting armed partisans of the Sandinista Front against their former enemies, seemed to carry only a vague threat of renewed fighting; Mrs. Chamorro, Daniel Ortega, and the conservative political leaders who broke with Mrs. Chamorro because of her alliance with the Sandinistas quickly put aside their differences to cooperate on a solution to the problem.

But the situation underscored the government's instability at a time when not only former rebels but also former allies in the U.S. government are demanding an end to the Chamorro-Sandinista union. This month, the U.S. Senate approved a bill suspending $98 million in aid to Nicaragua as long as General Ortega remains defense minister. The House has yet to act on the bill.

In Washington, the State Department spokesman, Michael McCurry, said the United States was "concerned that unless Nicaragua's civilian government establishes control over the security services, further progress will be very difficult to achieve."

After meeting yesterday afternoon with Mr. Obando, Daniel Ortega bitterly criticized American officials for threatening to cut off the aid. "With this intention they have of blockading Nicaragua, they're only going to worsen the crisis," he said.

Last year, $104 million in badly needed U.S. aid to Nicaragua was held up in Congress, chiefly on the complaints of Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who has long been a harsh critic of the Sandinistas.


But after releasing the last $50 million of the money in May, the Clinton administration has increasingly come to share Mr. Helms' complaints. Administration officials say Sandinista leaders have blocked efforts to prosecute soldiers in human rights cases, to return American-owned properties that the Sandinistas confiscated after taking power in 1979, and to investigate the Front's suspected links to terrorist groups.

Yesterday, a government official briefing American reporters insisted that the former Sandinista soldiers who retaliated for Mr. Talavera's hostage-taking by seizing Nicaragua's vice president and 33 other politicians as they met in the capital were probably enemies of Mr. Ortega. Most likely, the official speculated, the former soldiers were allied to Tomas Borge, the former interior minister, or to other rivals of the Ortega brothers.