EL ALMENDRO, Nicaragua -- President Violeta Chamorro declared an end to the civil war in Nicaragua Saturday at a jungle ceremony during which hundreds of Contra rebels set down their arms.
'I have dreamed of an end to war in Nicaragua. Now that dream is realized,' Chamorro, 60, told more than 1,000 Contras clad in camouflage and carrying automatic weapons. 'Today marks an end to war in Nicaragua.'
After the speech and an outdoor mass by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, the rebels surrendered their arms to United Nations peacekeeping forces to be destroyed.
Sunday was the deadline by which the Contras were scheduled to be completely disarmed and disbanded according to an agreement they signed with the Chamorro government and the former Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega.
Col. Manuel Maldonado, head of the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Nicaragua, said there would still be about 3,000 to 4,000 Contras left to disarm after the weekend, but a final push by both the Contras and the international monitoring groups meant that the bulk of the estimated 15,000 Contras would meet the deadline.
'This is it, right? The end of the war,' said Col. Javier Pichardo, head of the Sandinista air force. 'There may be a few Contras left after the deadline, but that's not important.'
Chamorro, cane in hand, moved through the crowd kissing Contras on the cheek.
She said an end to the war would allow her government to 'reactivate the economy.'
The former Sandinista government spent nine years and billions of dollars fighting the U.S.-backed Contras, and the war has been a large contributor to the impoverished state of the nation.
'The Sandinista army is also initiating a plan for a reduction of arms,' Chamorro said. 'I have that plan in my hands.'
Chamorro was expected to unveil an outline of the planned reductions early this week.
About 3,000 Contras, many of them trucked in from other regions, converged Saturday on El Almendro, a small mountain town about 170 miles southeast of Managua, accessible only by jeep or helicopter.
'We hope that in Nicaragua, one day, weapons will be a part of past history,' Contra leader Israel Galeano, alias 'Commander Franklin,' told the gathering. 'Let us now put them in museums or in parks for the children to play on.'
Many of the Contra soldiers were not as quick to declare an end to the war.
Manuel de Jesus Parilla, 21, said he was giving up his weapon because, 'Our commanders told us the Sandinistas are going to give up their arms too. We still have weapons hidden in the mountains.
'If (the Sandinista army) doesn't disarm, we will return to the mountains and regroup,' he said. 'And if the Sandinistas want to resume the war, the United States will give us more guns again.'
Maldonado said the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Nicaragua was extended Friday until June 29 to oversee disarming of the rest of the Contras.
He said three of the five security zones set up around Nicaragua for the disarmament were expected to be completely disarmed by Sunday. There also remain about 1,500 Miskito Indian rebels on the Atlantic Coast and an estimated 2,000 rebels of the Southern Front who have yet to disarm.
The Contras have been allocated a large section of southeast Nicaragua where they will be given land and helped in other ways with their return to civilian life.
The United States has also awarded $47 million to the Contras, some of which is for the disarmament process, some for the Contras themselves, and some for the tens of thousands of family members and other Nicaraguan refugees who are awaiting repatriation from camps across the border in Honduras.
The Nicaraguan government said Friday that repatriation would begin this month.
Interior Minister Carlos Hurtado said Saturday that the Contras would be allowed to have their own police force of 150 armed men to patrol the resettlement zone, but that they would answer to the Interior Ministry and live according to Nicaraguan law.
Rene Vivas, commander of the Sandinista-domininated National Police, said he thought 20 Contra police would have been enough, but he added, 'If it will end the war and bring peace, we will work with it.'