SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- U.S.-trained Salvadoran soldiers massed on the slopes of Chichontepec Volcano Tuesday for what one officer said would be the biggest search and destroy operation ever against leftist guerrillas.
U.S.-made UH-1H 'Huey' helicopters airlifted soldiers from the American-trained and supplied Atlacatl Brigade to the skirts of Chicontepec Volcano, 37 miles east of San Salvador, military officers said.
One high-ranking officer in the Atlacatl Brigade told UPI the troops planned to march eastward and sweep along the Lempa River in an attempt to clean out guerrillas who have dominated the area for the last six months.
The officer, who asked not to be identified, said it would be the biggest search and destroy operation ever launched against guerrillas fighting to topple the military-civilian junta.
Other troops gathered along the Lempa about 20 miles farther south at San Nicolas Lempa near the destroyed key bridge of Puente de Oro, with plans to attack guerrillas upriver in Usulutan and San Miguel provinces, other military officials said.
A U.S. Embassy spokesman said three American engineers are in El Salvador studying ways to replace as quickly and cheaply as possible the Puente de Oro bridge, destroyed by guerrillas on Oct. 15.
Options such as a pontoon bridge or giant rafts capable of carrying tractor trailers are under consideration to permit traffic across the Lempa River that divides El Salvador in half, the spokesman said.
Since rebels blew up the Puente de Oro, the armed forces have concentrated on protecting a nearby railroad bridge and the Puente Cuscatlan on the Pan American Highway, the only road bridge now available to cross the Lempa.
The guerrillas' Radio Venceremos said combat between goverment troops and rebels entered it's 10th day Tuesday outside the easterntown of San Agustin, claiming the Marxist-led leftist killed or wounded 35 soldiers.