After months of lying low, Nicaragua's contra rebels are on the attack once more. Last week, in action more vigorous than any seen in a year, the guerrillas staged a quick series of assaults that were bound to alarm the country's Sandinista rulers. Outside the village of La Palmita, 80 miles north of Managua, the capital, the rebels ambushed a military convoy, killing 29 government soldiers. Over the next two days, on the outskirts of the northwestern city of Esteli (pop. 75,000), they damaged two bridges on Nicaragua's main artery, part of the north-south Pan-American Highway. Then in midweek they staged their most ambitious raid this year. Shortly after daybreak, several hundred insurgents swarmed into La Trinidad, a small town near Esteli. For three hours they shelled a military barracks and battled government troops; at least 33 contras and eight militiamen were killed. Before withdrawing, the rebels set fire to government grain silos and food-storage sheds. In Esteli the government radio station broadcast messages calling for reservists to report for possible duty.
For the first time in their four-year campaign, the contras claim that they are strong enough to pose a credible threat to the Sandinista government. Their numbers continue to swell, with support coming in particular from poor Nicaraguan campesinos. The Nicaraguan army has attempted to keep the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), the main contra group, bottled up along the 550-mile border with Honduras. But the rebels claim that since late June they have infiltrated 14,000 guerrillas, operating under 13 regional commands, into Nicaragua, and that 53,000 more are awaiting training and outfitting on the country's borders. Moving along slippery paths in heavy jungle, the infiltrators have penetrated a loose cordon of Sandinista troops trying to keep the contras from launching deep-ranging attacks.
The contras no longer seem to be suffering from the severe shortages of equipment and ammunition that plagued them after the U.S. withheld funding for the rebels (Congress eventually allocated $27 million last June for "humanitarian" assistance). Contributions, FDN leaders say, have flooded in from several Latin American countries, as well as from Western Europe and Asia. "If we take the war into the cities," FDN Commander in Chief Enrique Bermúdez told TIME in a rare interview, "we shall destroy the evil regime like an earthquake."
The response from Managua to last week's rebel probes was to divert attention from the clashes around Esteli with the familiar warnings of an impending U.S. invasion. The Nicaraguan Defense Ministry placed the armed forces on maximum alert. But sources close to the government said that while officials were "worried" about the escalation of rebel activity in the northern part of the country, the contras don't yet "pose a real threat to toppling the government, even if they are very efficient at creating chaos."