Sun, Nov 14, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Nicaragua to destroy Soviet missiles


President Enrique Bolanos told US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Nicaragua would completely eliminate a stockpile of hundreds of surface-to-air missiles with no expectation of compensation from the US.

Bolanos said Friday that the anti-aircraft missiles would be destroyed within a year-and-a-half.

Nicaragua had 2,000 SA-7 missiles, which are portable weapons of Soviet design, left over from the Latin American country's days as a client of the Soviet Union. US officials sought their destruction, fearing they could make their way into terrorist hands for use against airliners or military aircraft.

In May and July, Nicaragua destroyed batches of more than 300 missiles each. Defense officials said they expect to have 1,000 destroyed by the end of the year.

"We seek no compensation for destroying the missiles," Bolanos said at a press conference. He said destroying them is "the will of Nicaragua."

The missiles are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.

Rumsfeld arrived Friday in Nicaragua during a trip through Latin America.

The Nicaraguan army had said it wants to hold on to about 400 of the missiles, which it argued are needed to offset the military capability of neighboring Honduras. The two countries, which have a history of animosity, have become embroiled in a border dispute in recent years.

But US defense officials said they believed Nicaragua intended to eliminate its entire stockpile.

Nicaragua had also previously suggested it would eliminate all its remaining SA-7s in exchange for planes and radar modules from the US military, totaling about US$80 million in aid.

The leftist Sandinista government, which ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1989 after the fall of a US-supported authoritarian right-wing regime, obtained the missiles from the Soviet Union to fight off US-backed Contra rebels.

The Sandinista party, now out of power, wants the US to compensate the country for destroying the missiles, but a senior American defense official said that was unlikely.

Rumsfeld also thanked Nicaragua for sending 115 soldiers to Iraq. They left last February; Nicaragua said it could no longer afford to keep them there.

Rumsfeld is expected to visit Panama before traveling to Quito, Ecuador, for a conference of Western Hemisphere defense ministers next week.

Earlier Friday, Rumsfeld met with President Tony Saca of El Salvador and awarded the bronze star to six Salvadoran soldiers credited with saving the lives of several occupation officials this year in Iraq.

The soldiers defended a convoy during an insurgent ambush last March outside Najaf, a Shiite Muslim holy city in southern Iraq. One soldier, Sergeant Victor Manuel Gonzalez Chanta, said their fighting back "was just an automatic response, and thank God."

Rumsfeld described their actions as "a story of courage and calm under fire."

In addition to Gonzalez Chanta, the soldiers honored by Rumsfeld on Friday were 1st Sergeant Fredy Adolfo Castro Urbina, the group's leader and a veteran of El Salvador's civil war; as well as Carlos Enrique Echeverria, Luis Evelio Mejia, Jose Daniel Oporto and Juan Francisco Cordoba.

In addition to Nicaragua, two other Latin American contingents -- from the Dominican Republic and Honduras -- returned home early or left as scheduled without replacements, leaving El Salvador the only country from the Western Hemisphere, other than the US, with troops in Iraq.

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