Central American countries to cooperate militarily on disaster relief

Defense ministers from Central America met with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Florida last week. In their concluding press conference, reported in Reuters, the ministers announced plans to form a joint force to respond to national disasters such as Hurricane Stan:
Central American defense and security ministers agreed on Thursday to form a military "rapid reaction" force to respond to natural disasters such as deadly Hurricane Stan, which devastated part of the region this month.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the ministers announced at a news conference winding up a two-day meeting that the force, which would be comprised of engineering and medical troops, would come from a number of countries in the region but did not say which countries would contribute. (Panama and Costa Rica have no militaries).

U.S. officials said the force would not be used to battle crime or narcoterrorism, a touchy issue among human rights advocates because of a dismal history of brutal military oppression in the region.

The rapid reaction force also would be separate from a battalion-sized regional peacekeeping force that is likely to be put together by troops from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.