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Central America Sends Its Thanks

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

CARTAGENA, Colombia, Dec. 3, 1998 – Central American defense leaders recently thanked U.S. troops for the help they've provided in their nations' time of need.

Nearly 3,000 U.S. service members are involved in disaster relief operations in Central America, where Hurricane Mitch blasted through in early November and left what one senior U.S. military leader called "a tragedy of enormous proportions." U.S. aircraft have flown some 600 sorties delivering 4 million pounds of emergency supplies. Military engineers are restoring roads and the more than 350 bridges damaged by the storm.

El Salvadoran Defense Minister Jaime Guzman, Guatemalan Defense Minister Hector Mario Barrios and Nicaraguan Defense Minister Pedro Joaquin Chamorro expressed their nations' gratitude during a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen here Dec. 1.

The defense leaders were here for the Defense Ministerial of the Americas, a three-day conference designed to strengthen military ties among the Western Hemisphere's 34 democracies. Honduras, the nation hardest hit by Mitch, did not send representatives to the conference.

Following their meeting, the four leaders met briefly with international news media. Cohen told reporters the road to recovery in Central America will be a long-term process as the region must first rebuild its infrastructure and then restore its economy. Along with sending troops, equipment and supplies, he said, the Defense Department has contributed $150 million of the total $250 million the United States is providing in aid.

"We've been very impressed with the level of cooperation and the reaction on the part of the Central American armies working very closely with our military," Cohen said. "We are very proud of the level of cooperation we were able to achieve."

Guzman noted that a second U.S. unit, Joint Task Force-Aquila, will be based in El Salvador to help with reconstruction efforts in his country and in Guatemala and Nicaragua.

"It will be very difficult to engage in reconstruction efforts using our very own resources," he said. "We have been set back 20 years in terms of the infrastructure and the human potential that was lost with so many deaths. We thank the United States very much for its willingness to work with us, and we are very willing to work hand-in-hand with U.S. personnel in the reconstruction of our country."

Barrios recalled U.S.-Guatemalan disaster preparedness training conducted months ago in his country that has proved so fortunate in Mitch's wake. He said the training helped save lives.

"The government is responsible for the well being and life of its citizens," Barrios said. "My country was able to save 7,000 lives on the border with Honduras and 3,000 people in other regions of the country. We thank the United States."

Chamorro stressed the importance of America's immediate rescue efforts in Nicaragua and its continuing support. "We are sure that we can count on the support of the United States in the reconstruction of our infrastructure," he said.

The Nicaraguan minister acknowledged the service and sacrifice of America's men and women in uniform, particularly those of U.S. Southern Command. "They are sacrificing their vacations, their Christmas and New Year's holidays, working with us hand- in-hand to help us recover our infrastructure," Chamorro said. "Our army is very pleased to be able to work alongside U.S. forces.

"I would say it is a historic event, after several decades of threats and crisis, that we are able to work together to help Nicaragua in this situation."

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