Thu, Feb 24, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US officials urge Nicaragua to give up Soviet missiles

THREAT Washington is pressing Managua to destroy 1,000 portable surface-to-air missiles that it says are at risk of falling into terrorist hands


US officials arrived on Tuesday to convince Nicaragua to destroy about 1,000 Soviet-era portable missiles as a court imposed light sentences on men accused of trading in such a weapon.

In Washington, state department spokesman Richard Boucher confirmed that a team led by Rose Likins, the acting assistant secretary for political and military affairs, was in the Nicaraguan capital to renew efforts to have the SAM-7 missiles destroyed.

Likins made no comment to the press as she arrived at the airport here.

US officials have been trying to convince Nicaragua to give up the surface-to-air missiles, which had been supplied by the Soviet Union when the former Sandinista government was battling US-backed Contra rebels. The Sandinistas left power in 1990.

Boucher said the US wants to see the missiles destroyed "so that they do not fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists.

"They are dangerous, and where countries don't need them, we think they should be destroyed," he said.

Early last year, US officials had praised the same army for sending troops to accompany US efforts in Iraq -- a mission that Nicaragua later canceled for what it said was a lack of funds.

Boucher did not comment on a Wall Street Journal report published on Tuesday in which an unidentified US official was quoted as saying the US government might consider Nicaragua's army a criminal organization if it failed to give up the weapons.

Asked about that report, the state department said on Tuesday that to date "there has been no decision by the US to change the existing relationship with the Nicaraguan military."

Boucher said the US had been concerned over the Jan. 11 arrest of an air conditioning repairman who had purchased a corroded SAM-7 in what turned out to be a police sting operation.

On Monday, a court imposed a 1-year sentence for terrorism on Oscar Rivera, repairman, and 18 months on the man who sold the weapon, Ivan Pineda. Judge Sergio Palacios also ordered the missile destroyed.

Pineda's attorney, Omar Cortez, said the defendants would appeal.

But Nicaraguan officials say the missile had nothing to do with the army stocks that the US wants to destroy.

Nicaragua's army has said repeatedly that investigations showed that the weapon did not come from its stores.

Pineda alleged that it had come from clandestine shipments that the US had sent to the Contras in the 1980s.

Former Contra leaders have acknowledged they received 250 such missiles from the US but insisted that they had turned over all remaining stocks when they disarmed in 1989.

Bolanos had promised US officials that Nicaragua would eliminate the army stock of 2,000 and he managed to have 1,000 destroyed. But Sandinistas in Nicaragua's Congress led passage of a bill that removed the president's power to order destruction of such missiles.

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