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US Suspends Military Aid to Nicaragua in Missile Dispute

The Bush administration confirmed Monday it has suspended military aid to Nicaragua because of that country's failure to follow through on a commitment to destroy Soviet-era portable anti-aircraft missiles. U.S. officials are concerned the so-called MANPADS, man portable air defense systems, could fall into terrorist hands.

The suspension affects only a fraction of the overall U.S. aid program to Nicaragua. But it underlines Bush administration displeasure over political wrangling in Nicaragua that has, at least for the time being, derailed the Managua government's missile-destruction effort.

Nicaragua received about 2,000 of the Soviet-made SA-7 missiles in the 1980s when the leftist Sandinista government was in power.

The current Nicaraguan president, Enrique Bolanos, promised the Bush administration in 2003 that his government would destroy the weapons, and did eliminate about half the stockpile last year.

However, the process has been resisted by the Nicaraguan army, which remains a Sandinista stronghold. And Sandinista legislators teamed up with some conservatives in the country's congress late last year to approve a measure requiring the president to get legislative approval for any further missile destruction.

At a news briefing, State Department Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli suggested the decision to withhold military aid is intended to influence the internal debate in Nicaragua and get the missile disposal process going again.

"President Bolanos made commitments to President Bush and [former] Secretary [of State] Powell about moving forward on the elimination of those stocks," he said. "We did achieve some progress on that. There are now some differences in the Nicaraguan government about the destruction of further stocks. And in light of those differences, some of our security assistance will be put on hold until the differences can be resolved and until elimination of the MANPADS proceeds forward."

Mr. Ereli says the suspension affects about $2 million in U.S. military aid, mainly for training and weapons credits.

He said the much larger U.S. economic aid program of more than $40 million a year continues, as will other key initiatives, including efforts to include Nicaragua in a Central American free trade agreement with the United States, and in the Bush administration's new Millennium Challenge assistance program.

U.S. officials have long been concerned that the Nicaraguan MANPADS, which are capable of shooting down civilian airliners, could fall into the hands of terrorists.

Those concerns were underlined in January when a so-called "sting" operation by U.S. and Nicaraguan law enforcement led to the arrest of two Nicaraguans trying to sell an SA-7 missile on the black market.

Some Nicaraguan legislators say the country should not dispose of more missiles until neighboring states like Honduras and El Salvador reduce the firepower of their armed forces.

Former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, who still wields considerable political influence, has denounced U.S. pressure for destruction of the missiles as an intrusion on Nicaraguan sovereignty.