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Powell Completes Visit to Central America - 2003-11-05

Secretary of State Colin Powell has completed a two-day Central American trip that included stops in Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras. The State Department says Mr. Powell obtained a commitment in principle from the Nicaraguan government to destroy a large stockpile of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.

The acquisition by terrorist groups of the so-called MANPADS, or man-portable air-defense systems, is a major concern for the Bush administration. And it has apparently scored an advance in its anti-proliferation efforts during Mr. Powell's talks in Managua late Monday and Tuesday.

Nicaragua has a stockpile of nearly 2,000 Soviet-made anti-aircraft missiles left over from the leftwing Sandinista government of the 1980s.

According to State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, Mr. Powell obtained a promise that the weapons will be destroyed during his talks with Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos and other top officials.

"We heard a strong commitment from the president, the defense minister and chief of army of Nicaragua to begin destroying their MANPADS," said spokesman Ereli. "The Nicaraguan government is working on a plan for that destruction. We expect to hear from them in a month or so on that plan. And the secretary urged them to carry out the destruction as soon as possible."

At a joint news conference with Mr. Powell late Monday, President Bolanos said he considered the stockpile of the aging weapons a risk to life and to Nicaragua's international reputation.

But at the event, he stopped short of a flat commitment to eliminate the weapons, saying they should be destroyed as part of a regional balance of forces agreement with other Central American states.

Mr. Powell began the brief Central America trip Monday with by attending celebrations in Panama of that country's 100th anniversary of independence.

He concluded it with a five-hour visit to Honduras Tuesday and talks with President Ricardo Maduro.

In a joint press event in Tegucigalpa, the secretary thanked the Honduran leader for his commitment of 370 troops to peacekeeping in Iraq, and praised his economic reform program, which he said could lead to stepped-up U.S. aid under the Bush administration's Millennium Challenge program.

He also said he was hopeful that a free-trade agreement between the United States and Central America can be concluded by the end of the year.

There is heavy opposition to the free-trade deal in Honduras and about 50 demonstrators protesting the pending accord and International Monetary Fund restrictions chanted loudly as Mr. Powell and the Honduran leader spoke to reporters.