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AFRICOM Commander Rejects Militarization Charge

The head of the newly formed U.S. military command for Africa, called AFRICOM, has briefed African Union leaders about the purpose of a mission that has been the target of early criticism. From A.U. headquarters in Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports AFRICOM Commanding General William Ward's task is to reassure skeptical officials that the new structure would not contribute to militarization of the continent.

After explaining AFRICOM's mission to A.U. Chairman Alpha Omar Konare, General Ward told reporters the watchword of the newest U.S. military command would be to do no harm on a continent fraught with troubles.

"The U.S. Africa command will endeavor to bring added value to all of the security cooperation endeavors that we undertake at the request of our African friends," general Ward said. "And in so doing, do no harm to the collective and substantial ongoing efforts on the continent."

AFRICOM came into being last month, days after General Ward was confirmed as its commander by the U.S. Senate. But the four-star general acknowledged the command has been the target of some criticism.

"Over the last few months, many things have been written about AFRICOM," general Ward said. "Before my confirmation by the U.S. Senate I was forced to be silent on this issue."

AFRICOM was created to consolidate U.S. Department of Defense work in Africa that had previously been spread among three regional commands. But early news reports had focused on concerns by several African countries, such as Libya and South Africa, that the move might signal an expansion of U.S. influence on the continent, or might draw Africa deeper into the global war on terrorism.

In a statement this week, West African military chiefs said the U.S. plan had not been fully understood, and called for what was termed "further sensitization" by American authorities.

As he started his first African tour as AFRICOM commander, General Ward served notice he will do just that. He rejected a suggestion that AFRICOM would result in a further militarization of the continent.

"Any notion of a militarization of the continent because of this. Absolutely false. Not the case," general Ward said.

Early reports had suggested the U.S. command was having trouble finding a home in Africa and that many leaders were uncomfortable having AFRICOM headquarters on their soil.

But an AFRICOM spokesmen says several African heads of state have reacted warmly to the command's presence, and one country, Liberia, has expressed an interest in hosting the regional command. The spokesman says AFRICOM headquarters might be located in the United States, as are other U.S. regional military commands.

General Ward says the decision where to base AFRICOM headquarters will be made after further consultations with African leaders.

"The thinking has evolved," he said. "There have been no decisions made. Any decision that is made will only be made in consultation with our friends, our partners, and based on those consultations, we will make a decision as appropriate."

AFRICOM officials say the headquarters command will eventually have a strength of as many as one-thousand staff, with a budget of about $250 million, or about three-percent of total U.S. government spending on Africa. Most of that will go for such things as peacekeeper training, logistics support to peacekeeping operations, and security capacity building.