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US to Open 'Mini Embassy' in Equatorial Guinea - 2002-11-19

The United States plans to re-open an embassy in Equatorial Guinea despite lingering concerns over human rights abuses in the small West African nation. But the move follows pressure from American oil companies who have invested heavily in the country.

A State Department official tells VOA the Bush administration's plan is to open what is described as a "small embassy" next year in Malabo, the island-based capital of Equatorial Guinea, a small West African nation divided in two main parts: the island of Bioko and Rio Muni on the mainland.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the U.S. official said the reason for the diplomatic move is to provide services to a growing number of American citizens, most of them oil workers in what was once the only Spanish colony in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the official also tells VOA that having a diplomatic presence will allow the U.S. government to discuss with authorities in Equatorial Guinea the need to improve the human rights situation there. The country is still described by U.S. intelligence sources as a police state with an abysmal record of human rights abuses and political repression.

The United States closed its last embassy in the country in 1995, citing budgetary restrictions. Responsibility for American interests was shifted to the U.S. Embassy in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea's main neighbor.

But since the closure, there have been significant oil discoveries in Equatorial Guinea and the tiny country, with fewer than 500,000 inhabitants, has become the fourth largest recipient of American investment in Africa, behind South Africa, Nigeria and Angola.

Official sources say those oil companies are deeply concerned about the security of their investments, one reason they have been pressing for greater U.S. engagement, including a formal security assistance program.

But security is one area where there are clear signs of continuing official U.S. squeamishness in dealing with Equatorial Guinea.

The Pentagon has had no military-to-military contacts with Equatorial Guinea since 1997 and U.S. authorities have declined to sanction a private American security company's $10 million plan to revamp Equatorial Guinea's entire security structure.

Instead, MPRI, a Virginia-based firm run by retired military officers, has been granted a U.S. license only to assist Equatorial Guinea with coast guard activities.

A spokesman for MPRI, which stands for Military Professional Resources Incorporated, says that as a result, the program has been essentially abandoned.