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US Denies Removal of Bolivian Missiles Was Secret

The United States denied Thursday that it removed anti-aircraft missiles from Bolivia without the knowledge of top officials in La Paz. The State Department says the operation was at the request of Bolivian authorities and in line with an Organization of American States resolution.

Officials here acknowledge that the United States removed a small number of MANPADS, man-portable air defense system, from Bolivia earlier this year as part of a broader effort to keep the shoulder launch missiles out of the hands of terrorists.

But they are denying charges from Bolivia, which figured in that country's presidential election campaign, that the operation was conducted without the knowledge of senior Bolivian officials.

Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales, the victor in last Sunday's election, has alleged that the 28 Chinese-made missiles were spirited out of the country in June in an operation he described as international intervention.

He says he will press for an investigation of the affair and is quoted as saying he would punish those responsible and evict U.S. military advisers from the country.

Questioned about the issue here, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. officials had worked with the Bolivian government on the removal of a small quantity of missiles he said were in a deteriorating condition.

He said the removal came at the request of the Bolivian government consistent with an O.A.S. resolution last June and said suggestions to the contrary are untrue:

"As for who was told in Bolivia about the action, you'll have to talk to the Bolivian government about that. As for these other allegations, it's just not true. This was done at the request of the Bolivian government, and it was done in partnership and consistent I would note with an Organization of American States resolution on the matter," he said.

The O.A.S. resolution, approved at the regional grouping's meeting in Ft. Lauderdale Florida in June, called for strict security for MANPADS, and the destruction of surplus weapons.

It urged member countries in a position to do so to provide aid and technical assistance to other states in collecting, securing and destroying stockpiles.

The United States has worked with a number of countries around the world to reduce MANPADS arsenals, especially in nations where the missiles are kept under poor security and could find their way onto the black market and into the hands of terrorists.

U.S. officials have been seeking to persuade Nicaragua to dispose of hundreds of Russian-made MANPADs acquired in the 1980's by the leftwing Sandinista government.

That effort, too, has become ensnared by domestic politics with the leftist-dominated Nicaraguan Congress opposing the disposal effort.

During his campaign for the Bolivian presidency, Mr. Morales filed a lawsuit against government officials for allegedly putting the country's national defense at risk by disposing of the missiles.

The missile issue is another potential problem in the U.S. relationship with Mr. Morales, who has sparked concern in Washington with campaign promises to legalize coca production in Bolivia and oppose hemispheric free trade.

The Bush administration Tuesday congratulated Mr. Morales on his election win, but said the quality of the relationship will depend on the kind of policies his administration pursues and whether it respects democratic institutions.