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Homeland Security

24 June 2005

U.S. Urges Nicaragua Assembly To Support Destruction of Missiles

Shoulder-fired missiles pose threat to civil aviation, senior diplomat says

By Merle D. Kellerhals, Jr.
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles pose a significant threat to commercial and military aviation, and have become a weapon of choice among international terrorists, says a senior U.S. diplomat.

"Since the 1970s, more than 40 commercial aircraft have been attacked with MANPADS [man-portable air defense systems], causing at least 24 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide," Ambassador Rose M. Likins, acting assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said June 24.

MANPADS are lightweight and easy to transport and conceal.  Most of them are between 4 feet and 6 feet long, about 3 inches in diameter and weigh less than 55 pounds.

The most well-known missile attack occurred in November 2002, when al-Qaida terrorists attempted to shoot down a civilian airliner in Mombassa, Kenya.

Likins said the United States and the International Civil Aviation Organization have called on the international community and regional organizations to control and safeguard the shoulder-fired missiles they have in their military inventories to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists.

The United States has worked closely with 13 countries to destroy their excess and obsolete missiles, which number close to 13,000, she said at a Washington Foreign Press Center briefing.  An additional 6,000 missiles have been committed for destruction within the near future.

However, Likins said that Nicaragua, which is considered among the cooperating countries and has destroyed 1,000 of its MANPADS, still holds about 1,000 missiles in its inventory, posing a considerable security risk.  And the Nicaraguan National Assembly has been reluctant to destroy the remaining stockpile, she said.

"The United States government considers the large number of remaining MANPADS currently held by Nicaragua to be a serious threat, not just to the Western Hemisphere, but to the entire world," Likins said.  "Because it also offers a possible target of opportunity by terrorist groups for illicit trafficking and worldwide use."

She said that Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos assured President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell in 2003 "that Nicaragua would destroy all of its MANPADS in order to reduce the chance that they might fall into the hands of criminals and terrorists."

Illustrating the extreme risk of holding MANPADS in its inventory, Likins said that in January Nicaraguan authorities recovered an SA-7, an older type of Soviet-era MANPAD missile, during a drug-trafficking sting operation, "further highlighting that these weapons in the hands of the wrong people pose a serious threat."

A law recently passed by the Nicaraguan National Assembly requires that the assembly must approve destruction of any of the country's remaining missiles. That requirement poses a serious obstacle to Nicaragua meeting its commitment to destroy its stockpile, Likins said.

"As a result of the move by the National Assembly, the United States has temporarily suspended military assistance to underscore the importance the United States places on the destruction of these MANPADS and on the promise made by President Bolanos," Likins said.  "We are committed to reinstating this assistance once the destruction of all MANPADS has taken place."

To keep the destruction of the MANPADS on track, Likins said, the Sandinista Party and the Sandinista president of the assembly "need to accept responsibility for this grave threat to international civil aviation and do the right thing.  Namely, allow the Assembly to pass legislation authorizing the Nicaraguan government to destroy the remaining MANPADS in the military's inventory."

Most of the MANPADS in Nicaragua's inventory were supplied during the 1980s by the former Soviet Union, she said.

Likins and Daniel W. Fisk, deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said there was no discernible reason for Nicaragua to hold 1,000 missiles because there is no military threat facing the country from its neighbors or in the region.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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