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Hostility is increasing against a large American military and civilian population in Honduras, although U.S. Embassy officials downplay claims that the attacks are imported from neighboring Nicaragua.

The United States has the largest foreign population in Honduras with as many as 2,000 military troops in the country at any given time and 300 American Peace Corps volunteers - the largest Peace Corps force in the world.Honduras is also the reluctant host nation for the Contras, or "resistance" forces, doing battle with Nicaragua's Communist-backed Sandinista regime.

Unofficially, some sources say the Sandinistas have more time to launch guerrilla attacks against forces that back the Contras in Honduras now that direct conflicts with the Contras in Nicaragua have been quelled by the stoppage of U.S. military aid to the resistance.

"The problem with making any sort of judgment about those attacks is that we don't know much about the groups who are carrying them out," said Ann Sigmund, counselor for press and cultural affairs under U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Everett Briggs.

Briggs and about a dozen of his top staff members briefed Utah Gov. Norm Bangerter Tuesday on the intricacies of U.S. foreign policy in Central America, but comments at the briefing were offered off the record.

The embassy itself was attacked April 16 at about 8 p.m. when two men attempted to place a bomb at an embassy warehouse situated 10 blocks from the main embassy complex in the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa. But the bomb exploded prematurely, killing one of the men and critically injuring the other.

The bomb would have caused a fair amount of damage to a building used for storage if it had been planted successfully, Sigmund said, but the threat to life was low as only one guard was at the warehouse.

Most of the attacks have been against American military convoys near a road-building project being conducted by Army National Guard and Reserve units, but even the Peace Corps and city hall in Tegucigalpa have had attacks in recent weeks, strengthening the theory that there is no common thread to the attacks.

The Peace Corps headquarters was bombed at 4 a.m. when no one was in the building. "The Peace Corps is perhaps the one American institution for which there is overwhelming support from all sectors of the society. The news media praises it - it really is probably the most popular foreign organization here," Sigmund said. "I assume it was picked because it was an easy target to hit, and because it was a target where they could be fairly sure no one would be killed."

Several things seem clear, Sigmund said. "The attacks seem to be designed not to injure personnel, but rather to do (property) damage."

No one has claimed responsibility for either attack.

The situation was much different April 7, 1988, when a riot outside the embassy caused extensive fire damage to the compound.

The Honduran government had allowed the U.S. to extradite a man named Ramon Matta to the states on drug charges. "It's constitutionally illegal to extradite from Honduras. His removal and the way it was explained to the public created a sovereignty issue," she said. The event coincided with an influx of U.S. troops that responded, at Honduran government request, to an incursion by Sandinistas into Honduras from Nicaragua. Matta had enough power in Honduras that he was able to pay demonstrators to march against the embassy, Sigmund said.

"Most of the time police break up demonstrations and people disperse. In this case the police did not stop it. That's something we have had discussions with the Hondurans over, and we are confident that will never happen again."

Bangerter and the party traveling with him found themselves experiencing an exercise in foreign security one evening when U.S. military security personnel spotted a suspicious car following the motorcade of a lieutenant general from Indiana. Bangerter's group and the other motorcade were whisked to the embassy compound where they were held until the threat was essentially ruled a false alarm.

"There are groups undertaking surveillance on embassy members, but we don't know who they are, we don't know what their intentions are, and that's not really so uncommon."

Sigmund said she could not give details about the groups that are known to operate in the Tegucigalpa area. "I can tell you there isn't a large guerrilla movement here as you have in El Salvador or even in Guatemala.

"What you have are very, very small cells of leftist activity - small groups, some of whom will use violence as a tool to express their political points of view. Their relationship to each other is not clear, but we think they are probably competing for whatever funding is available to such groups. Therefore they stage these activities to show they're viable as a group," she said.