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  Clinton Hails U.S. Efforts in Storm Zone

Clinton, AP
President Clinton, silhouetted against the mountains of Honduras, addresses United States troops in Honduras. (AP)
By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 1999; Page A17

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, March 9 President Clinton paid tribute today to the expanding humanitarian role of the U.S. military, saluting the troops who are rebuilding storm-ravaged roads, bridges, schools and clinics in Central America.

Thousands of National Guard and Army reservists are rotating through Soto Cano Air Base, nestled in the Sierra Madre mountains of Honduras. There, in a warm, makeshift hangar packed with U.S. troops and Honduran civilians, Clinton this morning hailed the reservists for their short- and long-term roles in helping this region recover from the devastating floods triggered by Hurricane Mitch last fall.

"You have shown the people of Central America the true colors of our men and women in uniform," Clinton said from a stage he shared with Honduran President Carlos Roberto Flores Facusse. Gesturing to the nearby airfield shared by U.S. and Honduran forces, Clinton said: "This long runway, turned into a lifeline, connected the countries all over the world. Over 47 million pounds of supplies came through here."

On this, the second day of his four-day Central American visit, Clinton came to the nation most damaged by the storm that stalled over the region for days, dumping torrential rains and triggering massive mudslides and floods. Honduras suffered more than 5,600 confirmed deaths and 82,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. Those numbers exceed the combined toll in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the other nations on the president's tour.

Clinton restated the main elements of his new relief proposal for the region, which already has received millions of dollars in U.S. aid and debt forgiveness since the storm. The centerpiece, $956 million in proposed supplemental aid, is stalled in Congress, where Republicans have tied it to domestic spending cuts that Clinton opposes.

The president today emphasized the region's long-term needs, and highlighted a new program, "New Horizons '99." Between now and September, it will draw on 23,000 U.S. troops from reserve, active and National Guard units. Using Soto Cano as their base, they will fan out to rebuild roads, schools, clinics, bridges and other facilities in the four nations Clinton is visiting this week.

The troops will come from 45 states, including Virginia and Maryland, and from the District of Columbia.

The regional relief effort, Clinton said, already has "turned into one of the largest humanitarian missions performed by the United States military since the Berlin Airlift 50 years ago."

Among those wearing camouflage fatigues and waving American flags in the audience today was Army Maj. Michael Beard of Miami, who is helping organize two task forces in Guatemala and one each in El Salvador and Nicaragua under the New Horizons mission. Immediately after Mitch hit, he said, relief groups from Japan, Spain, the Netherlands, Mexico and Cuba joined U.S. forces in rushing to the region's aid. "But now they're all gone," Beard said. "We're the only ones left. . . . The American people can really pat themselves on the back for what they've done here."

Clinton, who speaks little Spanish, won loud cheers when he said the response to Mitch's damage "reminds us that, in good times and bad, todos somos Americanos" we are all Americans.

After his speech at Soto Cano, the president flew to Tegucigalpa, Honduras's capital. Here he visited the Juan Molina Bridge, wiped out by Mitch and rebuilt with U.S. aid. He also participated in a round-table discussion of reconstruction needs in the region. President Flores was among the Honduran participants.

Clinton was scheduled to address the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly in San Salvador on Wednesday, and attend a regional summit in Guatemala City on Thursday, before returning to Washington.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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