- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 27, 2005

The State Department said yesterday it has asked Nicaragua to investigate whether its military is hiding stashes of SA-7 missiles capable of downing commercial airliners.

The Nicaraguan government later announced it was conducting a “thorough investigation.”

The statements came the same day The Washington Times reported that Nicaraguan police seized one of the Soviet-made missiles from black marketeers during a U.S.-assisted sting operation in Managua, Nicaragua.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday confirmed to reporters that Nicaraguan authorities seized the missile.

“There are allegations or suspicions that there might be some stockpile that’s held by the military or other parties,” Mr. Boucher said. “We have asked the government of Nicaragua to look into that and to investigate and find out whether indeed there might be some of these that have gone missing or might be in the wrong hands.”

Of the missile seizure on Jan. 11, Mr. Boucher said, “We commend Nicaraguan authorities for successfully recovering one of their Manpads [man-portable air defense systems], in this case a Russian-made SA-7, during a criminal investigation that culminated this month. Our Drug Enforcement Administration assisted them with that investigation.”

Salvador Stadthagen, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, told The Times yesterday that “this is an extremely serious matter and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has informed me that the president has ordered a thorough investigation.”

The Times reported that the United States has intelligence that indicates elements of Nicaragua’s military have hidden about 80 SA-7s for possible sale on the black market to terrorists.

The arrested men believed they were selling missiles, for several hundred thousand dollars each, to Colombian terrorists and were willing to provide them to Islamic militants, a Bush administration official told The Times.

The seizure has set off alarm bells among Bush administration officials because, to them, it confirms intelligence reports that elements of the Nicaraguan military have stashed SA-7s and that some could already be in terrorists’ hands.

The seized missile did not match the serial number of any of the 1,000 SA-7s in Nicaragua inventoried by the Organization of American States. The non-match is further evidence of a secret stash, an administration official said.

The official said it is not hard to imagine what terrorists could do with SA-7s procured in Nicaragua. From there, the missiles could be smuggled through Central America into Mexico and then across the porous border into the United States.

The heat-seeking SA-7s have a maximum range of about 15,000 feet, or three miles. Terrorists could use them to down aircraft on airport approaches or takeoffs.

Pro-U.S. President Enrique Bolanos of Nicaragua’s ruling Liberal Constitutional Party has pledged to the Bush administration to destroy the country’s inventoried stock.

“In Nicaragua, we have worked with the government of President Bolanos,” Mr. Boucher said. “He gave assurances to President Bush and former Secretary of State [Colin L.] Powell in 2003 that Nicaragua would destroy all of its man-portable air defense systems.”

But some Bush officials believe Mr. Bolanos is being double-crossed by officers loyal to the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front, which opposes destroying the weapons. The Sandinistas are re-emerging as a powerful force in Nicaragua after losing the elections in 1990. The left-wing Sandinistas have loyal officers well-placed in the army.

The Bush administration official said intelligence agencies have identified one particular officer as being linked to a secret stash of SA-7s and the Jan. 11 aborted sale.

The sting occurred at an air conditioner repair shop, with Nicaraguan police and U.S. officials present. A Nicaraguan general appeared at the scene and asked for the missile, but the police retained custody of the weapon.

The Sandinistas acquired thousands of SA-7s from the Soviet Union in the 1980s to battle the U.S.-supplied Contras.

In 2002, terrorists fired two SA-7s at an Israeli airliner taking off in Kenya. Both missiles missed.

Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda and other terror groups are actively seeking acquisition of SA-7s, especially now that new security procedures make it difficult to execute a September 11-style hijacking.

“Worldwide, the United States has been very concerned about the issue of Manpads and we’ve had a number of programs, whether it’s with individual countries or in organizations like [the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation], where we’re looking to control these missiles that can be used against aircraft,” Mr. Boucher said.

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