President Daniel Ortega dismissed claims that his promise to hold free elections is insincere, telling the nation he can now promote democracy because the Sandinistas are strong and backed by the people.

In a televised speech Wednesday night, Ortega also hinted that he might run for re-election.At the end of a regional summit Tuesday in El Salvador, he promised to hold presidential, legislative and municipal elections by next February and to allow the opposition to help organize them.

The summit agreement signed by five Central American presidents also calls for disbanding of the Contra guerrillas, most of whom are encamped in neighboring Honduras.

"We'll see who is strong, who the people will vote for," Ortega said. "Whoever is afraid of this (early elections) is not interested in peace or in the strengthening of democracy in Nicaragua."

The balloting had been scheduled for November 1990.

In Washington Wednesday, the State Department signaled its skepticism about free elections in Nicaragua by saying it had no plans to lift a four-year ban on diplomatic contacts with the leftist Sandinista government.

Rebel leaders said they felt abandoned by the United States, which had supported their seven-year fight to oust the Sandinistas.

The accords left the Contras isolated diplomatically, with about 11,000 fighters and several thousand relatives in neighboring Honduras.

Despite vows to fight on, they ran out of ammunition and moved into the border camps after Congress suspended military aid a year ago. On March 23, they signed a preliminary cease-fire accord with the Sandinistas.

Asked by reporters what would happen if the Contras refused to lay down their arms and relocate, Ortega said, "The Contras are creating a problem for Honduras. You can't force them to return to Nicaragua. But they will have to choose between coming here, staying - some of them - in Honduras, or leaving for the United States or whatever other countries are willing to take them in."

One opposition leader said the Sandinistas must be watched carefully in the elections or they'll try to cheat.

"President Ortega only talked with the Central American presidents, but he still needs to talk with the Nicaraguan people," said Gilberto Cuadra, president of the opposition Superior Council of Private Enterprise.

The Sandinistas' popularity has been hurt by the state of the economy. Inflation is at a 20,000 percent annual rate, food and consumer goods are in short supply and at least 30,000 public employees have just been laid off.

The government says the war is mostly to blame for the state of the economy, not their management of it.

Opposition leaders said Wednesday that elections as early as next February do not allow enough time for political parties to organize a campaign.

In his nationwide address, Ortega went over the points contained in a communique he issued jointly with the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica at their summit.

He stressed his willingness to promote greater democracy and submit elections to international observers, saying this "shows our political strength, which is rooted in the Nicaraguan people, the working people, the peasants and every patriotic Nicaraguan."

Ortega was asked how he interpreted the fact that President Bush had not publicly established his policy toward Nicaragua and the rest of Central America: "That fact in itself shows a different policy."

Earlier, Ortega said he told the Central American presidents "Nicaragua would not be promoting the political and economic actions it has been promoting since the start of the year if U.S. policy had been maintained along the lines of President Reagan."