American Killed in Nicaragua Civil War

U.S.-Backed Group Claims Accident; Sandinistas Blame Reagan Administration

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras--An American engineer killed in northern Nicaragua was caught in a firefight between rebel fighters and Sandinista militia, the largest U.S.-supported Contra force said yesterday.

The account contradicted Nicaraguan statements that 27-year-old Benjamin Ernest Linder, of Portland, Ore., was singled out by the Contras and slain.

The Nicaraguan Democratic Force, or FDN, said that it held the leftist government of Nicaragua responsible for the death of the first American to die in Nicaragua's civil war. Nicaragua said the U.S. government was to blame for supporting the Contras.

"The death of Linder was produced in the midst of a firefight between one of our patrols and a group of militia of the Sandinista army, which accompanied the U.S. citizen," the FDN said in a statement released in Tegucigalpa.

Linder's body yesterday was in Matagalpa, a Nicaraguan provincial capital, where a ceremony was held in his honor.

American colleagues of the Oregon engineer joined Sandinista officials in blaming the Reagan administration for his death.

The Contras' statement said Linder was killed Tuesday near La Camaleona, located about 45 miles from the Honduran border.

"This region is a permanent scene of combat between rebel forces and the army of the Nicaraguan government," the statement said.

"The FDN holds the Marxist-Leninist regime of Nicaragua [responsible] for the death of the U.S. citizen by allowing him to enter an area of civil war of our country, which is between Nicaraguans and not foreigners," it said.

"The American, one of the few international volunteers helping the Managua regime, lived in Nicaragua for several years and knew perfectly the risks he ran by being in a war zone accompanied by Sandinista soldiers," the statement said.

In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, dozens of wreaths surrounded the casket of the red-bearded engineer, who went to Nicaragua in 1983.

He was the first American volunteer working for the Sandinistas to be killed in the Contras' five-year-old war against the leftist government. Seven European volunteers have been killed since 1983.

A Nicaraguan government spokesman said Linder's relatives were not expected to arrive until today.

Nicaraguan officials said guerrillas killed Linder and two Sandinista militiamen Tuesday at La Camaleona, a village about 20 miles away in Jinotega province. The U.S.-financed rebels have been increasingly active recently in Jinotega.

There were conficting reports about the precise circumstances of Linder's death. He was helping build a small hydroelectric plant in La Camaleona.