October 4, 2005

US, Central American defense chiefs to meet

By Charles Aldinger

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
will meet defense ministers and security officials of seven
Central American nations in Miami next week to discuss
improving security in the key region, the Pentagon said on

The meeting is the latest sign of Washington's renewed
interest in a region long seen as the U.S. "backyard" but which
often felt diplomatically neglected by U.S. President George W.
Bush after the September 11 attacks and Iraq war.

Issues ranging from closer cooperation against threats such
as narco-terrorism and gangs to maritime safety and prospects
for a joint peacekeeping force will be taken up at the October
12-13 gathering on Key Biscayne, Pentagon spokesman Bryan
Whitman said.

Over the last year, security concerns have included U.S.
worries that anti-aircraft missiles in Nicaragua could fall
into "terrorists" hands and an escalating dispute over
navigation rights in a river separating Nicaragua and Costa

Some Latin American experts say that the U.S. is trying to
encourage more military involvement in fighting criminals from
drug runners to "maras" street gangs -- a touchy issue in a
region that suffered brutal dictatorships in the 1970s and

Rumsfeld will host defense chiefs and other officials from
Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua
and Panama. Latin American neighbors Mexico and Colombia have
also been invited to send observers,

The United States has praised the provision by many Latin
American and Caribbean countries of peacekeepers in Haiti and
in other trouble spots around the world in recent years.

"And I think there will be some discussion about the
possibility of a combined Central American peacekeeping unit, a
battalion ... perhaps to come to the aid of each other,
mutually supportive of each other," Whitman said.

Bush in August signed a free-trade agreement with five
Central American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua - and the Dominican Republic
in the Caribbean after a bitter fight in Congress over jobs and
the direction of U.S. trade policy.