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Guerrillas, Armed With AK-47s, Preparing Big Push

March 7, 1989 GMT

LAS VUELTAS, El Salvador (AP) _ A rebel leader says his fighters, many now armed with Soviet-designed assault rifles, are preparing a major offensive to answer the government for spurning a guerrilla peace plan.

″We are ready to escalate the war,″ said Diego. Like many rebel fighters, he uses only a nom de guerre.

Diego is a top officer of the Popular Liberation Forces, one of five guerrillas factions united in the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, or FMLN. He spoke with The Associated Press on Sunday.

″To say we will (escalate the war), then not do it, would be stupid both militarily and politically. So you can be sure we’ll do it.″ he said, sitting on a bench in a classroom off the main square of this rebel-dominated town in the northern province of Calatenango.

Over his shoulder was slung a Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle, one of several hundred Diego said his group has bought indirectly this year from U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels based in Honduras.

″The AKs are part of the military leap we’re preparing,″ Diego said. ″It is more potent in terms of firepower. It makes its user feel more powerful, while contributing to the demoralization of the enemy.″

The Farabundo Marti Liberation Front has been waging a Marxist-inspired war against the U.S.-funded government for nine years. The rebels say they are fighting for a fairer distribution of El Salvador’s wealth and to recover national sovereignty they contend has been sold to Washington.

Salvadoran insurgent chiefs said in mid-1988 they were acquiring arms indirectly from the Contra rebels. But AK-47s, the standard Contra weapon, have never been so evident among Salvadoran guerrillas as during the past few weeks.

Contra leaders deny their forces, which have been mostly idle since Washington cut off military aid 13 months ago, are selling weapons. El Salvador’s military high command contends Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government is givng AK-47s to the front.

The acquisition of the guns, which according to several reports may be in the hands of up to 10 percent of the estimated 7,000 rebel fighters, does not mean the Soviet rifle will replace the U.S.-made M-16 as the standard guerrilla weapon.

Diego said the guerrillas still try to use weapons as similar as possible to the enemy’s so captured ammunition can be used.

Miguel, a wispy-bearded guerrilla lieutenant with his squad in El Zapotal, four miles from Las Vueltas, cradled his new gun affectionately.

″Yeah, we like them. They’re a better weapon (than the M -16),″ he said. ″But ammunition could become a problem in the long run, and then we’ll just go back to the M-16.″

Like Diego, Miguel uses a nom de guerre. He said the AK-47s are being issued to more seasoned combatants.

The rebels have not said when their offensive would begin, but their peace proposal was linked to the March 19 election.

″If you have a smaller and less technologically sophisticated army than your enemy, you don’t go telling him when you’re going to attack,″ Diego said.

The offensive will be a response to the government’s unwillingness to accept the guerrillas’ proposal.

The guerrillas on Jan. 24 offered to take part in and respect the outcome of the presidential election if it were postponed until September, and if security and anti-fraud conditions were met.

President Jose Napoleon Duarte’s Christian Democratic administration has been at odds with the opposition-controlled legislature over how to deal with the rebel offer.

The Farabundo Marti Liberation Front said last week that time was running out and proposed a meeting Tuesday between government and rebel representatives in San Salvador. But Legislative President Ricardo Alvarenga on Monday rejected postponement of the election as unconstitutional.

The constitution says the election must be held at least two months before a new government takes office. Duarte’s term ends on June 1.

Clandestine rebel radio on Monday called the government response a ″tacit rejection″ of the guerrillas’ peace overture.

Diego urged Duarte to end ″aerial and long-range artillery bombardment″ that claim civilian casualties.

The rebels last week said they have suspended use of what they call ″mobile artillery platforms.″ The army and government call them terroristic ″car bombs.″

The weapons, used in several recent attacks on major military installations in the capital, are pickup trucks fitted with homemade mortars.

The platforms carry an explosive charge that goes off, launching a bomb. The first charge tends to destroy the truck, often doing more harm to nearby civilians and their property than the military target. Four civilians have been killed and dozens wounded by the devices.