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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – A U.S. military advisor at a Salvadoran army base came under fire yesterday in an early morning rebel attack that killed three Salvadoran soldiers, but he apparently managed to escape unharmed.
It is at least the fourth reported attack involving U.S. advisers since they were deployed in El Salvador in 1980.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs confirmed that a U.S. operations, planning and training officers was present at the army engineering base in Zacatecoluca, 35 miles southeast of the capital. But Jacobs denied that the adviser came under fire or was in any immediate danger.
A tape-recording of the advisor’s radio report to military superiors in San Salvador paints a different picture, however. The report indicates that the advisor considered himself to be in immediate danger. A tape of the transmission was obtained by a correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The unidentified adviser, using the code name Commando Two Zero, contacted a U.S. Special Forces officer identified at Rotelo at headquarters in San Salvador about 4:30 a.m.
“Hello, Commando Two Zero” reporting.
“Go ahead, over.”
“Listen in. The —- hitting the fan pretty bad out here. I’m getting out of here…I’m… I’m bailing out of here. I’m getting out of here…I’m breaking through. So if I can make… Don’t worry about it. I’ll get out of here… and, ah… I’ll rendezvous with whoever comes out tomorrow, over.”
“Roger, I understand… S.D.O. (staff duty officer) is on the way. Stand by.”
The U.S. adviser said the rebels were using automatic weapons, rampas, or homemade catapult bombs, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The adviser initially referred to the rebel action as an exploratory “probe” but said it later turned into an attack.
“Commando Two Zero, Rotelo. Go ahead, over.”
“Yeah, the probe has turned into a… an attack from the northeast. We got, ah… three wounded already. We have one blindado (armor-plated vehicle) in ambush… and we got one kid-–he’s in pretty bad shape… he’s probably going to go away. And we got two wounded, over.”
“This is Rotelo. Roger, I understand, anything else? Over.”
“Commando Two Zero out.”
The guerillas and soldiers battled for three hours, according to officials there, including base commander Col. Benjamin Canjura.
Canjura said three soldiers were killed, including a major. Two soldiers died when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the truck in which they were traveling; 13 others were wounded in the fighting, Canjura said.
There is no indication that the U.S. adviser sustained injury.
The guerillas also attacked an important army base in the capital, killing two civilians who lived nearby, officials said.
The early morning attack on the 4,000-member 1st Brigade’s headquarters was the fifth on a major military installation in San Salvador since November. With jurisdiction over the capital and its environs, the brigade headquarters is considered the country’s most important military installation.
Col. Orlando Zepeda, commander of the 1st Army Brigade, said there were not casualties inside the downtown base and that damage was negligible, but he refused to allow journalists inside.
The rebels used two pickups fitted with catapults. The detonation of one explosive charge launches the bombs and simultaneously blows up the vehicle.
The explosion of one of the vehicles killed Pedro Martinez, about 70 years old, and his wife, Maria Teresa, about 65, who lived in a house near the headquarters.
A Western official said he knew of only three occasions when U.S. advisers have engaged in combat in El Salvador.
In March 1987, Army Sgt. Gregory Fronius was killed during the rebel assaults against the Army’s 4th Bridgade at El Paraiso.
U.S. advisers also came under attack during rebel assaults against Salvadoran military bases at Usulután in February 1988 and again at El Paraiso in September.
A U.S. official said that any time U.S. military personnel engage in combat it must be reported to Congress. After the latest attack at El Paraiso, the Defense Department waited two weeks before announcing that U.S. military personnel had come under fire.
U.S. military advisors are widely believed to have found themselves in combat situations more frequently than has been reported.
One Western diplomat said, “I would presume that every time a military base is attacked, a U.S. adviser come under attack.”
In recent weeks, rebel attacks have become more frequent. Yesterday, the rebels attacked two other military installations at the same time they assaulted the Zacatecoluca based and on the base of the 1st Brigade in San Salvador, they said.