- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell made brief stops in Panama and Nicaragua yesterday to discuss trade, security and terrorism with officials in the region, celebrating 100 years of Panama’s independence and urging Nicaragua to destroy its Soviet-era shoulder-fired missiles.

“Let me say how proud I am of being here to represent President Bush and the American people on the 100th anniversary of Panama’s independence,” Mr. Powell told reporters after lunch with Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso.

He also met and spoke with Chen Shui-bian, president of the Republic of China (Taiwan), becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to greet a Taiwanese president since 1979.

“We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries,” Mr. Powell told reporters.

Beijing always strongly objects to any gesture that might be construed as recognizing Taiwan’s sovereignty. Mr. Chen has made himself particularly annoying to mainland China with frequent remarks suggesting Taiwanese independence.

Mr. Chen praised Panama for the progress it has made in democratic and economic reform since the “difficulties in December 1989” — a reference to the U.S. invasion of Panama that ousted former leader Manuel Noriega. He also complimented Panama on the “superb manner in which the Panama Canal has been operated” since it was taken over by the country on Dec. 31, 1999.

In response to a question, Mr. Powell said Washington had fulfilled its obligations to Panama regarding cleaning up the firing ranges, still dangerous after the United States turned over the canal. However, he said the United States was looking into training more Panamanians to continue the cleanup of “lingering” environmental damage.

After staying a few hours in Panama, Mr. Powell flew to Nicaragua, inviting Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos to fly with him so that they could spend an extra hour and a half discussing U.S.-Nicaragua relations.

Upon arrival in Managua, Mr. Powell said he expected the United States to finish negotiation on a free-trade agreement with Central America by the end of the year, adding that it was his “strong” expectation that Congress would approve the deal.

He reiterated Washington’s wish that Nicaragua would destroy in estimated 2,000 MANPAD (Man-Portable Air Defense System) missiles, saying they pose an unnecessary threat. While narco-trafficking and terrorism was a threat, Nicaragua has no reason to fear an invasion from one of its neighbors, he said. The shoulder-fired missiles from the civil war in the 1980s did not add to Nicaragua’s security, he said.

Mr. Bolanos said he and his military chiefs were discussing the issue, but he would not commit to taking the weapon out of Nicaragua’s inventory.

Today, Mr. Powell flies to Honduras, where he will discuss many of the same issues. Tonight, he will give a speech on China at Texas A&M; University in College Station, Texas, before returning to Washington.

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