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Mexican army convoy with doctors, mobile kitchens heads for U.S.

MEXICO CITY—A Mexican army convoy and a navy amphibian warship are on their way to New Orleans to assist in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, the first time the Mexican military has operated north of the Rio Grande River since Texas won its independence in 1846.

The Mexican forces are bringing helicopters, 14 trucks, a mobile surgical unit, emergency personnel, three tons of purified water, food and giant kitchens.

"We will do anything within our reach to help this unfortunate situation. Mexico is a friendly neighbor, and in difficult times, good friends are there for each other," President Vicente Fox said last weekend in offering aid. U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza said that "the American people are grateful" for the assistance.

None of the Mexican soldiers is armed, officials said.

The military convoy left Mexico City on Wednesday and was expected to arrive Thursday morning in the Texas border city of Laredo. The convoy is made up of 25 military vehicles and 35 tractor-trailers carrying 195 soldiers and two mobile kitchens that can cook three hot meals a day for 7,000 people.

Also aboard the convoy are Mexico's elite search-and-rescue teams known as the "Topos," or "Moles," which gained prestige around the world following the 1985 Mexico earthquake that killed untold thousands.

On Monday, Mexico dispatched the amphibious landing ship Papaloapan, carrying helicopters and trucks, from Tampico on the Gulf Coast. It was last used in April in Indonesia following the tsunami.

Two Mexican Cabinet ministers, Social Development Secretary Josefina Vazquez Moat and Defense Secretary Gen. Gerardo Clement Vega, were dispatched to Louisiana to oversee the Mexican effort, as was the governor of Fox's home state of Guanajuato, Juan Carlos Romero Hicks.

Mexico's foreign ministry said U.S. rescue workers found the bodies of three Mexicans who died in New Orleans. Mexico estimates some 145,000 Mexicans were living in areas affected by Katrina and said the Bush administration has pledged not to arrest any undocumented workers found in those areas.

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

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