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BUSH LIFTS NICARAGUA TRADE EMBARGO

President Bush today lifted a five-year trade embargo against Nicaragua and asked Congress to provide $300 million quickly to help speed the transition to democracy. He said the funds should come from the Pentagon budget.

Bush also renewed his call for $500 million in assistance to Panama, where an American invasion force installed a new government last December. He said both Central American nations "need our help to heal deep wounds" after years of political and economic struggle.The president opened his news conference by announcing that he had lifted the five-year trade embargo that former President Reagan had imposed against the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega.

Ortega was defeated in last month's elections by opposition candidate Violetta Chamorro.

Bush called for creation of a "Fund for Democracy" to assist Nicaragua and Panama.

The president never mentioned the Contras, the rebels who received millions of dollars from the United States during the Reagan administration. But his aid request includes about $45 million to help pay costs of relocating some 10,000 Contra rebels and tens of thousands of family members from camps along the Honduran border to homes inside Nicaragua.

Bush urged Congress to speed the aid on its way by April 5 and to assist the administration in identifying Pentagon programs that could absorb the needed reductions "without having an unacceptable impact on national security."

At another point, however, he said he was prepared to submit a list of suggested Pentagon cuts on his own. "It will be done like that," he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.

Bush's plan for aid to Panama has been bogged down in Congress over the issue of which programs would lose money to finance the assistance.

Bush called Chamorro on Monday to brief her about the aid package, a source said.

The president paid tribute to the extraordinary worldwide move toward democracy in 1989, and said the drive for freedom "leaves us with a new challenge, how best to support newborn democracies."

Even before Bush formally unveiled the Nicaragua aid package, there was support in Congress for the assistance.

"After 10 years of trying to destroy Nicaragua, we do have a responsibility to help democracy," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that doles out foreign aid.

Included in Bush's proposed Nicaraguan aid package is $60 million for critical agriculture, petroleum and medical supplies; $10 million for emergency employment programs; $50 million to help Nicaragua pay off debts to the International Monetary Fund and other financial institutions; $75 million to help support Nicaragua's currency as part of economic restructuring; $60 million for infrastructure projects including major bridgem highway, school and hospital repairs, as well as the $45 million for the repatriation and resettlement of the Contras.

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More White House points

-"Every president" wants to see interest rates lower, but he denied the existence of a "bubbling war" with Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

-He was disappointed that the Communist government in China has not made progress toward democratic reforms but said "I have no regrets" about the administration's China policy.

-Appealed to major league owners and ballplayers to settle their labor dispute "so the American people can hear that cry `play ball' again."

-Said a long-ago use of marijuana shouldn't disqualify a political candidate. The question arose in the context of a political flap in Texas where Ann Richards, who is seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, has refused to say whether she ever used illegal drugs.

Bush also showed his zest for political combat when he said of House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, a frequent critic, "I don't want to knock the man. Maybe he'll come up with a good idea one of these days."

Bush was asked about the telephone call he held several days go with the man who he thought - incorrectly - was Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani. The president admitted it was a "hoax," but said, "What's wrong with reaching out and touching someone."

"The hostages are at stake," he said.

Bush said things are going on in "back alleys" involving the fate of the eight American hostages. He stressed his determination to do all he could to free them. The longest held hostage, Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, will mark his fifth anniversary in captivity on Friday.

"When the whole story comes out on this, you are going to be very, very fascinated with the details, very fascinated," he told reporters.