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President Reagan ordered 3,200 American troops sent to Honduras...

By NORMAN D. SANDLER

WASHINGTON -- President Reagan ordered 3,200 American troops sent to Honduras for military exercises Wednesday in what the White House described as 'a measured response' to a Nicaraguan invasion directed against U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

Toward the end of a day marked by tension and mixed signals, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced the dispatch of an infantry brigade task force to Palmerola Air Base in 'an emergency deployment readiness exercise.'

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The announcement, read to reporters at a late-night White House briefing, followed a day-long round of deliberations within the administration and on Capitol Hill on a cross-border offensive denied by the Nicaraguan government.

With U.S. officials charging the drive was intended to crush a Contra force weakened by the Feb. 29 cutoff of American aid, Fitzwater said Reagan ordered the action in response to a request from Honduran President Jose Azcona Hoyos.

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'In addition to its value as a test of the military proficiency of our military units,' Fitzwater said, 'this exercise is a measured response to show our staunch support to the democratic government of Honduras at a time when its teritority is being violated by the Cuban- and Soviet-supported Soviet army.

'This exercise is also intended as a signal to the governments and peoples of Central America of the seriousness with which the United States government views the current situation in the region.'

Fitzwater described the exercise as open-ended and emphasized U.S. troops 'will not be deployed to any area of ongoing hostilities.' Palmerola is 125 miles from the nearest reported clash between Contra and Sandinista forces.

The task force to be dispatched Thursday will consist of two battalions from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., two battalions from the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, Calif., and support personnel.

Word of the mobilization came several hours after Fitzwater assured reporters the day-long deliberations within the administration and on Capitol Hill had ended without a firm decision on a course of action.

Although the White House had confirmed an earlier 'request for assistance' from Azcona, it was not described as an appeal for military support. Officials said the decision to send troops was a response to a subsequent request, conveyed to U.S. Ambassador Everett Briggs in Tegucigalpa around 5:30 p.m. EST, the same time a high-level review of options was under way in the White House Situation Room.

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'He made clear his request was for our effective and immediate assistance to maintain and sovereignty and territorial integrity of his country,' Fitzwater said.

Once word of the new request from Azcona reached Washington around 7:45 p.m. EST, national security adviser Colin Powell and White House chief of staff Howard Baker briefed Reagan in the familyquarters of the White House.

Reagan approved the plan at 8:00 p.m. EST. About 45 minutes later, Azcona confirmed his request to Briggs in a formal cable.

'When friends ask for our support, we should provide it,' Reagan told his senior advisers.

From Capitol Hill, the announcement evoked criticism from Democrats.

'I think it's an error,' said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., who labeled the Nicaraguan incursion a matter of 'hot pursuit' rather than the outright invasion claimed by the White House.

Democratic presidential hopeful Paul Simon, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the move 'a mistake' and said the United States should instead concentrate on 'demilitarizing the situation there.'

'I think it compounds an already foolish policy,' Simon said.

The troop deployment was one of several military and diplomatic options weighed by the administration throughout the day.

Powell, Baker and Secretary of State George Shultz consulted congressional leaders for 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon on the military and political ramifications of the Nicaraguan incursion, though no hint of imminent action was given at that time.

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Early in the day, Fitzwater sought to send a strong signal to Managua by telling reporters, 'At this moment, everything is being considered short of invasion.'

Viewed with skepticism by some members of Congress, the crisis atmosphere generated by the White House over the military threat to the Contras created a political opening for Reagan to escalate his drive for a resumption of aid, including arms, to the rebels.

Toward the end of a day marked by tension and mixed signals, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater announced the dispatch of an infantry brigade task force to Palmerola Air Base as part of 'an emergency deployment readiness exercise.'

'In addition to its value as a test of the military proficiency of our military units,' he said, 'this exercise is a measured response to show our staunch support to the democratic government of Honduras at a time when its teritority is being violated by the Cuban- and Soviet-supported Soviet army.

'This exercise is also intended as a signal to the governments and peoples of Central America of the seriousness with which the United States government views the current situation in the region.'

The announcement, read to reporters at a late-night briefing at the White House, followed a round of deliberations within the administration and on Capitol Hill to a cross-border offensive denied by the Nicaraguan government.

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With U.S. officials charging the drive was intended to crush a Contra force weakened by the Feb. 29 cutoff of American aid, Fitzwater said Reagan ordered the action in response to a request from Honduran President Jose Azcona Hoyos.

The task force sent to Honduras by Reagan will consist of two battalions from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C., two battalions from Fort Ord, Calif., and support personnel.

Fitzwater described the exercise as open-ended and emphasized U.S. troops 'will not be deployed to any area of ongoing hostilities.' Palmerola is more than 100 miles from the site of the reported clash between Contra and Sandinista forces.

Word of the order by Reagan came several hours after Fitzwater assured reporters that the day-long deliberations within the administration and on Capitol Hill had ended without a firm decision on a course of action.

Although the White House had confirmed a 'request for assistance' from Azcona, it was not described as an appeal for military support. Officials said the decision to send troops was a response to a subsequent request, conveyed through the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

Once word of the new request from Azcona reached Washington, national security adviser Colin Powell and White House chief of staff Howard Baker briefed Reagan in the family quarters of the White House.

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From Capitol Hill, the surprise announcement evoked criticism from Democrats.

'I think it's an error,' said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., who labeled the Nicaraguan incursion a matter of 'hot pursuit' rather than the outright invasion claimed by the White House.

Democratic presidential hopeful Paul Simon, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called the move 'a mistake' and said the United States should instead concentrate on 'demilitarizing the situation there.'

'I think it compounds an already foolish policy,' Simon said.

The troop deployment was one of several military and diplomatic options weighed by the administration throughout the day.

Powell, Baker and Secretary of State George Shultz consulted congressional leaders for 90 minutes Wednesday afternoon on the military and political ramifications of the Nicaraguan incursion, though no hint of imminent action was given at that time.

Early in the day, Fitzwater sought to send a strong signal to Managua by telling reporters, 'At this moment, everything is being considered short of invasion.'

Viewed with skepticism by some members of Congress, the crisis atmosphere generated by the White House over the military threat to the Contras created a political opening for Reagan to escalate his drive for a resumption of aid, including arms, to the rebels.

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The White House charged that the Feb. 3 rejection of Reagan's last Contra aid package by House Democrats created the military conditions that invited what Fitzwater called 'an all-out death blow' against the rebels.

U.S. officials at the White House and State Department estimated some 1,500 Sandinista troops, supported by Soviet-built Mi-17 helicopters, had crossed the border in an outright invasion aimed at driving the Contras out of Nicaragua and destroying their supply camps in Honduras.

Another 4,500 Sandinistas were said to have moved into the Bocay Valley area of Nicaragua, near the Honduran frontier, where command and support facilities for the invasion force had been established.

Honduran Ambassador Roberto Martinez confirmed 'a penetration' of 1,600 to 3,000 Sandinistas, a figure that squared with updated U.S. estimates, but said the mountainous and jungle-like terrain had made verification difficult.

It is not unusual for smaller Sandinistas patrols to search that area for Contra forces because the border is not clearly marked and the terrain and dense jungle vegetation make it hard to make aerial surveys.

In contrast to the charged atmosphere created by the White House, however, Martinez said his government hoped to defuse the situation through diplomatic efforts conducted directly or under the umbrella of a regional peace plan.

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Whatever the situation in the field, the White House depicted the push as evidence the Sandinista regime in Managua is not in compliance with a regional peace accord signed in August and sought to bolster its case for aid to the Contras.

Although Reagan bowed to political realities by dropping arms and ammunition from his latest aid request, Fitzwater said the Sandinista offensive, coming at a time when the Contras are low on food, medicine and other supplies, meant that 'all the doors have to be opened again to aid possibilities.'

Noting that Ortega warned of such action only days ago, Fitzwater said: 'He has been very clear about what his plans are. His plans are to wipe out the freedom fighters.'

Pentagon spokeswoman Marine Cpt. Nancy LaLuntas said the United States currently has 1,100 troops in Honduras including about 100 engineers. An additional 800 military engineers are deployed in northern Honduras near the Nicaraguan border.

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