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US Sends Officials to Nicaragua for Talks on Anti-Aircraft Missiles

The United States has sent a team of senior officials to Nicaragua for talks on that country's efforts to account for and dispose of its Sandinista-era arsenal of man-portable anti-aircraft missiles, the so-called MANPADS. The Managua government has promised to destroy its entire stockpile, but at least one such weapon recently was offered for sale on the black market.

The Bush administration has publicly praised Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos for his efforts to deal with the missiles his government inherited from the leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.

But it is signaling that it has some concerns about the process, and has sent the team headed by Rose Likins, acting assistant secretary of state for political and military affairs, to Managua to renew contact on the matter.

President Bolanos assured President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 that Nicaragua would destroy its entire stockpile of 2000 of the Soviet-made shoulder-fired missiles, which are capable of downing civilian airliners if they fell into the hands of terrorists.

So far, Nicaragua has destroyed about half the stockpile, but the country's National Assembly, led by Sandinista members, voted recently to require its approval for further MANPAD destruction.

Questioned at a news briefing here, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher pointedly declined to say that the Bush administration is entirely satisfied with Nicaragua's performance on the issue, and that the assembly vote was among the items of concern for the U.S. team in Managua.

"I think we have been satisfied with some of the efforts the Nicaraguan government has made to destroy missiles, to the sting operation that helped identify that there might be others out there. But obviously the National Assembly vote creates difficulties. And it is one of the reasons why we want to get a team down there to try to work with them, to help make sure that the government can fulfill the pledge that it made at very high levels," he said.

Mr. Boucher's reference was to a U.S.-assisted "sting" operation in January by Nicaraguan authorities, who arrested two men who tried to sell a missile to undercover police agents posing as agents for terrorists.

A Nicaraguan judge Tuesday convicted the two men of possessing and seeking to sell the portable missile and sentenced one of the men to 18 months in prison and gave the other a one-year term.

Nicaraguan defense officials said at the time of the arrests last month that the missile seized in the case was old and inoperable, and had not come from the government arsenal.

But the State Department said there were reports that elements in the Nicaraguan military or others might be keeping an unaccounted-for supply of the missiles.

It called on the Managua government late last month to investigate and find out if, indeed, some of its MANPADS may have "gone missing or might be in the wrong hands."

Secretary of State Powell said in a November 2003 visit to Nicaragua that the stockpile did not contribute to Nicaragua's security or to a balance of forces in the region, were a burden to the country's military, and should be entirely destroyed.

U.S. officials believe that two MANPADS of the same type possessed by Nicaragua were fired at an Israeli airliner leaving the Kenyan port city of Mombasa in November, 2002, but missed their target.

That attempt came just minutes before a car bomb attack at an Israeli-owned beach resort nearby, attributed to the al-Qaida terrorist organization, that killed 15 people including three suicide attackers.