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Rumsfeld Meets With Central America Allies

Times Staff Writer

During a one-day stop in a country to which the United States once shipped many millions of dollars’ worth of weaponry, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered a message of disarmament.

In answer, Rumsfeld received assurances Friday from Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos that the country’s stockpile of about 1,400 SA-7 surface-to-air missiles would be destroyed within 18 months and that the Central American nation expected no U.S. payment for the loss.

The elimination of the SA-7s “is the will of Nicaragua,” Bolanos said during a news conference with Rumsfeld in the presidential palace here. “We seek no compensation for the destruction of the missiles.”

The issue has been a source of tension between the allies as the United States pressed Bolanos’ government to accelerate the elimination of its SA-7 arsenal, which originally totaled more than 2,000. Nicaragua received the Soviet weapons during the 1980s as its Sandinista government fought the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

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U.S. officials fear the missiles could be sold on the black market to extremists and used to down commercial or military aircraft.

Although Nicaragua has destroyed more than 650 of the shoulder-fired missiles since May, its military officials had argued for holding on to about 400 to deter its northern neighbor, Honduras. The two have been engaged in a border dispute.

The Nicaraguan leader’s statements seemingly end the gamesmanship between his country and Washington over the issue.

“Have you ever played poker with a Nicaraguan?” one senior U.S. defense official remarked. “They play a very good hand.”

Rumsfeld’s trip through Central America -- days before a meeting of Western Hemisphere defense ministers in Quito, Ecuador -- is meant in part to thank select countries for committing troops to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq.

El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic dispatched troops to Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, although the latter three have since withdrawn their forces. El Salvador has about 370 soldiers in Iraq.

Earlier Friday in San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital, Rumsfeld pinned Bronze Stars on six special forces soldiers for their valor during a fight with Iraqi insurgents in March.

The troops were providing security for six officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which governed Iraq at the time, when militants fired on their convoy between Baghdad and Najaf, U.S. officials said. The Salvadorans returned fire and drove safely through the attack zone, and are credited with saving the lives of the officials.

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U.S. officials have cited El Salvador as a model of what Iraq could one day become. Once racked by civil war, El Salvador held democratic elections despite persistent strife and is now considered a stable democracy and a close U.S. ally.

Based on this example, officials say, the elections scheduled for January should not be delayed by the deadly insurgency in Iraq.

“When one looks at this country and recognizes the fierce struggle that existed here 20 years ago and the success they’ve had despite the fact that there was a war raging during the elections, it just proves that the sweep of human history is for freedom,” Rumsfeld said in San Salvador.

“We’ve seen it in this country, we’ve seen it in Afghanistan and I believe we’ll see it in Iraq.”

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