SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Leftist guerrillas briefly captured and burned a U.S.-designed fort Friday in a bold coordinated attack on the country's two main northern garrisons.
'For the first time in the war, our forces have taken the garrison of an infantry brigade,' the guerrillas' Radio Farabundo Marti said.
'The garrison of the 4th Infantry Brigade has fallen into our hands,' said the special broadcast, claiming rebels also attacked 25 military installations in Chalatenango province in pre-dawn raids.
A thick column of black smoke billowed into the sky from the 4th Infantry Brigade garrison in the Chalatenango province town of El Paraiso, 30 miles north of El Salvador, witnesses said.
Military officials in the region confirmed the fort had been burned and that the army had retaken El Paraiso after a bitter daylong fight. Telephone lines and electricity were cut and the army barred transit into the battlezone.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Donald Hamilton denied a report by the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina that two American military men were captured, saying he was '100 percent sure' no U.S. military personnel were in the area.
Residents in Tejutla, 5 miles northwest of El Paraiso, said they saw a rebel truck haul away 15 guerrilla dead, adding 25 army prisoners of war were also taken away.
Guerrillas in Tejutla claimed 300 soldiers were killed or wounded, while rebel radio transmissions offered no casualty claims late Friday. The Defense Ministry released no casualty figures.
U.S. Army engineers oversaw the construction of the fort, El Salvador's most modern garrison, before it was opened in 1981.
Helicopters rushed 400 troops of the U.S.-trained Ramon Belloso battalion to El Paraiso to support the besieged garrison and American-supplier spotter planes and warjets attacked guerrilla positions, military sources said.
Many of the brigade's 2,500 soldiers were participating in a counterinsurgency sweep in eastern Chalatenango, but Radio Farabundo Marti said it was defended by four 350-man 'hunter' battalions.
The Defense Ministry said 800 guerrillas from the Popular Liberation Forces, the FPL, attacked the 4th Infantry Brigade Friday, backed by 81mm mortar fire from artillery units of the People's Revolutionary Army.
In a simultaneous attack, guerrillas drove on the 1st Military Stockade in the nearby provincial bapital of Chalatenango city, which has a population of 10,000 residents, but they pulled out before dawn.
Civilian sources said at least 10 soldiers were killed in Chalatenango City but that guerrillas were withdrawing by late morning.
Loud explosions could be heard at midday at a major crossroads about 15 miles east of Chalatenango, military and civilian sources said.
Sources in the region said they feared the army death toll could be high since several isolated outposts guarding bridges on the road from Chalatenango to San Salvador were overwhelmed in attacks before dawn.
The Defense Ministry, which deployed 20,000 soldiers in a nationwide offensive Thursday, said the guerrilla attacks were intended to 'disrupt' a sweep around the Cerron Grande and Cinco de Noviembre hydroelectric dams in eastern Chalatenango.