The Miami Herald
February 22, 2000

Nicaragua, Honduras argue over tiny island

 Troops dispute threatens deal


 MANAGUA -- A Lilliputian flyspeck of land in the Caribbean, so tiny that it doesn't
 show up on most maps, is threatening to unravel negotiations between Nicaragua
 and Honduras aimed at easing tensions stemming from a dispute over territorial

 Cayo Sur seems like an unlikely spot for an international dispute. It is barely
 bigger than two soccer fields and its only strategic resources are a couple of palm
 trees and a fisherman's shack. International observers have been taken to the
 island, and at least one -- a U.S. military attaché -- found no evidence of a military
 presence. But that has not stopped Nicaragua from accusing Honduras of putting
 troops on the island.

 That would violate agreements reached between the two countries during
 negotiations over the past two months on the rights to some 12,000 square miles
 of the Caribbean Sea. The fact that Honduran diplomats can't make up their
 minds whether they have troops on Cayo Sur has only served to fuel the
 smoldering dispute. One of the diplomats said Honduras had only a handful of
 people there, using the Spanish phrase cuatro gatos -- literally, four cats. Another
 said there were soldiers on the island, and what of it?

 ``If those are cats, let's hear them say `meow,' '' Nicaraguan military chief Joaquin
 Cuadra said Wednesday. ``Neither country should have a military presence on
 that island . . . They've got to get out of there. And if they don't, Nicaragua has to
 be prepared to take measures.''


 Although this latest twist in the feud has its comic opera aspects, neutral
 diplomats who have been trying to work out a peaceful solution to the dispute
 since it flared up in late November 1999 consider the fracas over Cayo Sur an
 exasperating development.

 Tensions between the two countries have ebbed and flowed since Nov. 30, when
 Honduras ratified a treaty with Colombia in which the two countries carved up
 about 12,000 square miles of the Caribbean claimed by Nicaragua, an area rich in
 fish and -- perhaps -- oil and natural gas. Some of the waters are within 100 miles
 of Nicaragua, though 300 miles from the Colombian coast.

 The saber rattling began to subside after negotiations in Miami at the end of the
 year and in El Salvador this month, in which the two sides agreed to keep military
 forces out of the disputed waters and let the World Court settle the dispute. But
 last week, Cuadra said Nicaraguan military intelligence had spotted Honduras
 moving troops onto Cayo Sur, about 70 miles off the Central American coast, in
 the heart of the disputed area. The troops had to leave, he warned, adding that if
 they didn't, Nicaraguan soldiers ``know how to fight, they have fought, and they
 have the means to fight.'' Honduran Defense Minister Edgardo Dumas replied
 sarcastically: ``There's no question that we have now and have always had four
 cats, but there's no army.''


 Honduran Foreign Minister Roberto Flores, though, let the cats out of the bag,
 confirming that there were troops on Cayo Sur, though he said they had no
 ``belligerent goals.''

 ``It's just that we've always had them there,'' he explained.

 Honduran officials took military attachés from five countries for an inspection of
 Cayo Sur. One of them was U.S. Army Maj. Frank Grimm, an assistant attaché,
 who ``said he saw no Honduran military presence, equipment or evidence of
 military operations,'' according to a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Tegucigalpa.

 Nicaragua's Cuadra was not convinced, however. ``They've already admitted they
 had troops there,'' he said. ``The fact that one of the countries is occupying an
 island in the area is an important asset for their arguments in the World Court.
 They're going to say, `It's ours -- it's ours because we've already been there.' ''

 The latest incident came over the weekend, in the Gulf of Fonseca on the Pacific
 side, when Nicaragua and Honduran patrol boats exchanged gunfire, each
 claiming the other fired first. No injuries were reported.