KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. – Nicaraguan military officials have assured Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (search) that a cache of about 1,000 Soviet-era surface-to-air missiles is secure, even though its destruction has been stalled.
Rumsfeld, at a two-day conference with Central American defense and security ministers, told reporters that the Nicaraguan military has done all it can to address the issue, which is a subject of continuing concern to the United States.
"They have in every way possible guaranteed their security," Rumsfeld said. "And that is, from our standpoint, encouraging."
Nicaragua's minister of defense, Avil Ramirez Valdizia (search), repeated his message to reporters Thursday, saying the warehouses holding the missiles have been secured.
As the meetings ended, Rumsfeld said the United States and Central America had forged greater cooperation this week on fighting crime and preparing for natural disasters.
The ministers said they continue to work on legal issues that prohibit several of the countries from participating in joint military operations. But they said they will take steps toward setting up a rapid-response force for disasters.
Costa Rica and Panama do not have military forces, but do have national police.
"We made useful progress toward increasing cooperation of our armed forces in important areas such as planning and training together to better prepare for future natural disasters and jointly combatting transnational threats," Rumsfeld told reporters.
Last year, Nicaragua's governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party, whose leader, Arnoldo Aleman (search), is in prison, halted plans to destroy the missiles, which U.S. officials see as a threat to civil aviation.
The country initially had planned to eliminate them. U.S. officials are concerned about political unrest in the country, including an alliance between Aleman and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.
The meeting with the Nicaraguan defense minister was one of several private sessions Rumsfeld had during the conference.
Rumsfeld, who has been juggling military disaster relief efforts in the U.S., Pakistan and Guatemala, told Central American leaders that the next unknown crisis can only be resolved if democracies work together.
"It is clear the better the relationships and the better organized we are with respect to security matters, the better able we will be to deal with disasters, natural or manmade," he said.
In the past week the Pentagon has poured military resources, including helicopters, medical teams, food and engineers, into Guatemala, where mudslides buried entire villages, and Pakistan, where an earthquake has killed thousands.
At the same time, the military continues to provide relief to the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast. Other nations have reached out to help displaced Louisiana and Mississippi residents since hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Security and defense ministers from Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the United States are attending the conference. Mexico, Colombia and the Dominican Republic sent observers.