February 5, 1999
Central America seeks free trade aid from Clinton

                  TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (Reuters) - Central American leaders
                  Thursday called for President Clinton to grant the region free-trade access to
                  the U.S. economy to help it rebuild from the ravages of Hurricane Mitch.

                  Clinton is due to review Central America's recovery efforts in a visit to the
                  region March 8-11.

                  On Thursday the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa
                  Rica, as well as representatives from the governments of Guatemala, Belize
                  and the Dominican Republic met to hammer out joint aid proposals ahead of
                  the visit.

                  The Central Americans will seek similar access to the U.S. economy to that
                  granted Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement
                  (NAFTA), Honduran President Carlos Flores told reporters after the
                  meeting. The countries have argued free trade would lead to greater foreign
                  investment and job creation.

                  They also called on international lending organizations and industrialized
                  country to forgive at least 80 percent of the debt owed by Honduras and
                  Nicaragua, the two hardest hit by Mitch, and for the granting of fresh loans
                  on favorable terms.

                  Mitch lashed Central America in late October and early November, killing at
                  least 9,000 and causing an estimated $5 billion in damage to roads, bridges
                  and homes.

                  On Wednesday Commerce Secretary William Daley unveiled U.S.
                  programs to help Central American countries, including a trade mission and
                  better weather forecasting.

                  However, he downplayed chances of NAFTA's expansion to include
                  Central America, citing likely congressional opposition to such a proposal.

                   Copyright 1999 Reuters.