- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. (AP) — Nicaraguan military officials have assured Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that a cache of about 1,000 Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles is secure, even though its destruction has been stalled.

Mr. Rumsfeld, at a two-day conference with Central American defense and security ministers, told reporters that the Nicaraguan military has done all it can to address the issue, which is a subject of continuing concern to the United States.

“They have in every way possible guaranteed their security,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “And that is, from our standpoint, encouraging.”

Nicaragua’s minister of defense, Avil Ramirez Valdivia, repeated the message to reporters yesterday, saying the warehouses holding the missiles have been secured.

As the meetings ended, Mr. Rumsfeld said the United States and Central America had forged greater cooperation this week on fighting crime and preparing for natural disasters.

The ministers said they continue to work on legal issues that prohibit several of the countries from participating in joint military operations. But they added that they will take steps toward setting up a rapid-response force for disasters.

Costa Rica and Panama have a national police but no military forces.

“We made useful progress toward increasing cooperation of our armed forces in important areas such as planning and training together to better prepare for future natural disasters and jointly combating transnational threats,” Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters.

Last year, Nicaragua’s governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party, whose leader, Arnoldo Aleman, is in prison, halted plans to destroy the missiles, which U.S. officials see as a threat to civil aviation.

The country initially had planned to eliminate them. U.S. officials are concerned about political unrest in Nicaragua, including an alliance between Aleman and Daniel Ortega, leader of the Marxist Sandinista party.

The meeting with the Nicaraguan defense minister was one of several private sessions that Mr. Rumsfeld had during the conference.

Mr. Rumsfeld, who has been juggling military disaster-relief efforts in the U.S., Pakistan and Guatemala, told Central American leaders that future crises can be resolved only if democracies work together.

“It is clear the better the relationships and the better organized we are with respect to security matters, the better able we will be to deal with disasters, natural or man-made,” he said.

In the past week, the Pentagon has poured military resources — including helicopters, medical teams, food and engineers — into Guatemala, where mudslides buried entire villages, and Pakistan, where an earthquake has killed thousands.

At the same time, the military continues to provide relief to the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast. Other nations have reached out to help displaced Louisiana and Mississippi residents since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Security and defense ministers from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the United States are attending the conference. Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic sent observers.

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