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Aid mission brings Mexican soldiers to home of the Alamo

SAN ANTONIO, Texas—Like ghosts from a bygone era, a Mexican military convoy of 47 vehicles bringing relief to victims of Hurricane Katrina arrived in the home of the Alamo on Thursday, the first time Mexican soldiers have operated north of the Rio Grande since 1846, at the beginning of the Mexican-American War.

They were greeted like heroes as they rolled across the Texas countryside from Laredo on the border to the site of the former Kelly Air Force Base, where 3,400 evacuees from New Orleans are housed.

The former base lies 12 miles southwest of the Alamo, where, in 1836, the last Mexican troops to visit this city made martyrs of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and other defenders of the old mission. It's this city's biggest tourist attraction.

The 200 soldiers this time were unarmed, and their convoy included doctors and dentists who had set out 41 hours earlier from Mexico City. They were greeted with waves, shouts and honking horns.

"I'm excited," said car salesman Cesar Tirado, 40, who said he came to Texas from Mexico as an illegal worker years ago but has since become a legal resident. "This is historic. It has never happened since the Alamo, but this is a good cause, a humanitarian cause."

He stood atop his pickup truck with other Mexican-American friends and 70 others by the side of Interstate 35, watching as the convoy passed on its way to San Antonio.

"I never thought I'd see this," said Alison Hood, 49, the assistant fire chief for Bexar County, where San Antonio is located.

The convoy, whose vehicles were festooned with Mexican flags, carried 163 tons of food, water and medicine, as well as three mobile kitchens capable of cooking 21,000 meals a day for 7,000 people.

The convoy left The Colombia Solidarity bridge, an international crossing north of Laredo, the busiest land port in the United States, at 10:30 a.m. Thursday for the 160-mile trip north, but at 45 mph and because of traffic, the trip took more than five hours. The convoy was escorted by police, highway patrol and Border Patrol vehicles. The Bush administration waived visa requirements for the Mexicans.

"It's kind of ironic they are coming to San Antonio, the home of the Alamo," said Dale Allen, 50, a Bexar County firefighter. "It's good Mexico is helping the needy, so long as they go back."

Shortly after arriving at Kelly, the soldiers began setting up tents and portable kitchens. They were mostly off limits to reporters, as were the Katrina evacuees.

"I am so happy to be here. I never thought it would happen, considering the bad feelings that still exist about the Alamo," said one soldier who gave his name only as Adrian as he set up a tent.

Mexican Brig. Gen. Francisco Ortiz said before crossing the bridge that he was proud to be leading the mission.

"This is a case where our neighbor and friend needs our help, and it's what always should be done," he said. "We need peace and brotherhood between our nations."

The Mexican government was planning to send a second, 12-vehicle aid convoy to the United States sometime this week. It has sent a navy ship, the Papaloapan, equipped with rescue vehicles and helicopters, to the Mississippi coast 30 miles south of Biloxi.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): WEA-KATRINA-MEXICO

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