TAMPA, Fla. – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld approved the dispatch of military helicopters, food and other aid to help Central American nations inundated by massive mudslides mount recovery operations.
Such catastrophes are too much for any country to handle alone, Rumsfeld said Tuesday, en route to meetings he is hosting in south Florida with security leaders from seven Central American countries. "It looks like it's a terrible natural disaster. It's heartbreaking."
Rumsfeld said the mudslides were exactly the type of crisis that require the countries in Central America to work more closely together. He said cooperation would also let those nations better handle their security concerns, ranging from terrorism to narcotics and hostage-takings.
U.S. assistance on the way to Guatemala and other parts of the region includes a mix of nine Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters, mostly from bases in the region, with at least six other helicopters getting ready to go soon, Roger Pardo-Maurer, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere (search) policy, told reporters. A medical unit from the Arkansas National Guard also was preparing to go.
Pardo-Maurer said the United States was sending food, water, plastic sheeting, medical supplies and other equipment and would be helping to improve communications.
The U.S. relief effort is being coordinated by Army Gen. Bantz Craddock. Rumsfeld was told that rain in the region was expected to continue another seven to 10 days.
Rumsfeld also spoke with Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command (search), on Tuesday morning to coordinate a wide range of additional relief efforts for victims of the deadly earthquake in Pakistan (search). Abizaid and Rumsfeld met with Pakistan's senior representative to Central Command's headquarters in Tampa, Brig. Gen. Ikram U. L. Haq, who told reporters that he believes that the outpouring of earthquake aid from Western nations will have a positive effect on Pakistani public opinion about the West.
In addition to the 12 U.S. and four Afghan helicopters already available in Pakistan, the U.S. military had four more heavy lift helicopters en route, and had identified 36 more helicopters that were being prepared to go.
The Army later announced at the Pentagon (search) that it was sending 25 CH-47 Chinook (search) helicopters to Pakistan from Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Drum, N.Y. The Army also is sending about 200 soldiers to provide support for the helicopter operations in Pakistan, plus a mobile surgical hospital and a water purification unit from U.S. bases in Europe.
Disaster aid and illegal drugs and arms control problems across Central America will be key topics at the two-day conference in Key Biscayne, Fla. Officials also hope to encourage the Central American countries to develop a regional peacekeeping unit to help improve coordination on border security, crime and disaster response.
Rumsfeld stopped in Tampa to speak with troops at a town hall-style meeting at MacDill Air Force Base. He thanked them for the service and assured them that the United States and its allies will prevail in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Central American ministers meeting, which begins Wednesday, comes just days after mudslides caused by torrential rains buried entire Mayan towns in Guatemala and killed hundreds of people across the region, including in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Mexico.
"The purpose is really to look at regionwide cooperation in Central America," Pardo-Maurer said, adding that there is growing interest in developing coordinated responses to drug trafficking, gang crime and illegal arms sales.
Improving security, said Pardo-Maurer, will help boost economic development in the region.
U.S. officials are also concerned about political unrest in Nicaragua, including what Pardo-Maurer called the "brazenly corrupt alliance" between Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (search) and governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party leader Arnoldo Aleman. The Liberal party last year halted plans to destroy a cache of about 1,000 surface to air missiles that the country had initially agreed to eliminate.
Last week, in a visit to Nicaragua, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick made it clear that the United States sees Aleman, who is serving a 20-year prison term for fraud and money laundering, as a threat to that country's democracy. And he warned that at least $175 million in U.S. aid would be lost if the Ortega-Aleman alliance leads to the ouster of current President Enrique Bolanos.
Pardo-Maurer said U.S. defense officials are concerned because a missile showed up on the black market. He added that Rumsfeld wants to let Nicaraguan military officials know that he is pleased with their efforts to support Bolanos.