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
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,
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
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
``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
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.