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NATO begins mission to aid Katrina victims

ASSOCIATED PRESS | September 11, 2005
By NADIA RYBAROVA

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- NATO began its mission to airlift aid to the United States on Sunday, sending a cargo plane to the Czech Republic to load up with blankets, camp beds and tents bound for the stricken Gulf Coast.

The converted Boeing 707 was expected to fly the Czech supplies to Little Rock, Ark, on Monday, in the first such flight since the 26 NATO allies agreed Friday to mobilize planes and ships to rush aid to U.S. regions hit by Hurricane Katrina.

"It's a great opportunity that we want to be a part of and help as soon as possible back in the States," said Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Schmidt, commander of the plane's unit, before it left its base in Geilenkirchen, Germany.

The plane, one of three in the NATO fleet, can carry up to 10 tons of equipment. It landed in Prague to load up 600 camp beds and 14 large tents donated by the Czechs.

According to Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, 26,000 blankets will leave the country on another plane later this week.

Speaking at a news conference at the Prague airport Sunday, Svoboda called the first shipment a "symbolic expression of true friendship and partnership between our republic and the United States."

"The United States ... thank you and the people of the Czech Republic for this," U.S. Ambassador William Cabaniss said, noting that the United States is receiving the aid on a day marking the fourth anniversary of terrorist attacks on his country.

"And here we are ... thanking our friends in the Czech Republic for their support and assistance after this ... largest natural disaster our country has ever experienced," Cabaniss said.

Svoboda said his government is ready to provide more aid, including rescue teams, firefighters, pumps or water purification units, depending on what the United States needs.

"The Czech Republic and Prague specifically has a lot of experience with a city under water," Cabaniss said, referring to devastating floods that hit the Czech Republic three years ago.

In response to a U.S. request, the NATO allies have freed up two large transport ships and the planes for the relief effort. The planes are being used to carry emergency aid from donor nations that do not have their own airlift capacity.

The aircraft are normally used to train crews for the alliance's fleet of AWACS surveillance planes.

Two ships from Denmark and Norway were due to load up with more heavy cargo for the United States under the command of the elite NATO Response Force.

Once loaded, they are expected to take about 14 days to cross the Atlantic, said a statement late Saturday from NATO's military command in southern Belgium. The ships can carry the equivalent of 600 large trucks.

The United States first asked NATO for help on Sept. 4.

 

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