WASHINGTON -- Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams said Wednesday thousands more U.S.-backed guerrillas have infiltrated Nicaragua this month and will carry their fight 'all over the country.'
Abrams, the State Department's point man for aiding the Contras, also said the controversy over the diversion of profits from secret U.S. arms sales to Iran has not reduced congressional support for legitimate aid for the Contras.
'It's an extraordinary thing,' he told reporters. 'It hasn't happened.'
Abrams denied any wrongdoing by the department and said the Contras were 'victims in this whole business.'
Declining to criticize Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, the fired National Security Council aide who has become the central figure in the foreign policy scandal, Abrams said: 'He is being investigated by everybody in the country and the investigations will find what they find. I have no criticisms to offer.
'It was a pleasure and a delight to work with him and he was a great friend and I still consider him a great friend,' he said.
Abrams said the scandal notwithstanding, the $100 million aid program for the Contras approved earlier in 1986, which includes $70 million in military assistance, is going forward.
'We've now had two months and in fact resistance fighters are infiltrating back into Nicaragua on schedule,' he said.
He said 'thousands' have returned to their country from camps in neighboring countries since the beginning of December and that 5,000 Contras who were already inside Nicaragua are being re-equipped.
He said there is a timetable for almost all of the 20,000 Contras to return to Nicaragua and 'good plans' for them to attack the Marxist Sandinista government once they are there.
'What they're going to do is what guerrilla fighters do. They're going to go all over the country and do lots of things as their numbers grow,' he said. 'To try and take hold of territory is to permit the Sandinistas to concentrate on their two great advantages -- greater firepower and greater numbers.'
Abrams said the administration will ask Congress in August for at least another $100 million for the rebels, but for the package to be approved the present program must show results.
'I think what the Contras have got to prove is that the strongest criticisms made of them last year are not true: that the money is being spent unwisely or cannot be accounted for, that they do not wish to fight, that they are ineffective fighters,' he said.
By the time the $100 million runs out Oct. 1, he said, 'They have to have disproven those criticisms of them and they'll have to demonstate popular support, that they want to fight, that they can fight, that there's popular support for their cause in Nicaragua.'
Abrams suggested the only alternative to aiding the Contras would be putting U.S. troops in Central America.
'I think when we get right down to it, I would be very surprised to see Congress abandon the Contras knowing what the consequences may be,' he said. 'I do not detect any desire to walk away from Central America.'