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War on Terrorism Changing  US-East Africa Relationship - 2002-12-15

Since the U.S.-led war on terrorism was launched in Afghanistan 14 months ago, the war has expanded to include much of East Africa. VOA correspondent Alisha Ryu examines the growing terrorist threat and the military ties that have been forged during the past year between Washington and governments in the region.

An eyewitness describes the devastation and carnage at Paradise Hotel in Mombasa on November 28, minutes after a car bomb slammed into the hotel and killed 16 people. Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had targeted the hotel because it was popular with Israeli tourists.

Western officials believe this was not the first al-Qaida attack in East Africa. The terrorist group is also blamed for carrying out the near-simultaneous bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. It is believed that Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida's leader, orchestrated the 1998 bombings, partly through the aid of al-Qaida cells in nearby Sudan and possibly Somalia.

Following a massive but ultimately unsuccessful hunt for the embassy bombers, U.S. intelligence officials issued warnings that terrorists were taking advantage of East Africa's porous borders and poorly guarded coastline to train and move arms and equipment.

But tightening borders and improving coastline security did not become a priority for the United States until early this year. Following intelligence reports that al-Qaida leaders and fighters were fleeing Afghanistan for Somalia, Yemen, and other areas in the region, the United States and its allies began intense maritime patrols around Africa's eastern coast, using the small Muslim country of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa as a base of operations.

The United States also began increasing its troop presence in Djibouti, obtaining permission to stage large-scale military exercises on Djiboutian soil, as well as to establish a military base and command headquarters to coordinate anti-terrorist operations with countries in the region.

Djibouti's prime minister, Dileita Mohomed Dileita, said although his country is Muslim, it believes the U.S.-led fight against terrorism is not about fighting Islam but about restoring peace.

Mr. Dileita said Djibouti rejects any connection between Islam and terrorism. He emphasized the country is helping the United States and its allies because it is the right thing to do.

Since early this year, Djibouti's neighbor to the west, Ethiopia, has also emerged as a key supporter of the war against terror. Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been the most vocal African leader in claiming that Somalia is harboring and training al-Qaida terrorists and groups linked to them. He said a militant organization known as Al Ittiyad al Ismalia, operating out of southern Somalia, is emerging as a serious threat to regional stability. "There are some groups in Somalia that are associated with al-Qaida," he explained. "Somalia is indeed one of the key bases of the middle and low ranks of al-Qaida."

It is not yet clear if the United States has asked for Ethiopian cooperation in conducting anti-terror operations. But its northern neighbor, Eritrea, has announced that it is willing to host U.S. troops. During Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's visit to the Horn of Africa in mid-December, Eritrea offered the United States access to the country's military bases.

The offer marks a dramatic warming in relations between Eritrea and the United States, which had been chilly at best in recent months. In October, the United States accused the government of human rights abuses. Eritrea responded by accusing the Central Intelligence Agency of plotting against it.

In Kenya, which shares borders with Ethiopia in the north and Somalia in the east, there is little sign the country plans to lessen its support for the war on terror. Earlier this month, U.S. Marines and Kenyan soldiers began a scheduled two-week military exercise. Officials from both countries say the bombing in Mombasa showed the continuing need for close cooperation between the two countries.

Although President Moi will step down from office later this month [December] after almost a quarter century in power, he recently told Kenyans that the nation's next leader has no choice but to continue the fight against terrorism. "We know that terrorism is a danger not only to Europe or America but to Africa," he said.

Even Somalia has been hinting that it, too, does not want to be left out of the growing regional alliance with the United States in the terrorism war. The prime minister of Somalia's transitional government, Hassan Abushi Farrah, said his government absolutely rejects allegations that it is linked to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and is ready to prove to Washington its good intentions.

"There is no base of al-Qaida in Somalia," he said. "Already the president [of Somalia] has sent the Bush administration a letter of invitation to come here to see what we have here, and that we are ready to fight against terrorists."

Analysts say the countries showing support for the U.S.-led war are clearly hoping to be well rewarded for being a friend to the United States. They note that the supplemental U.S. defense budget passed in March included $373 million for counter-terrorist financing for Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya. That money would not likely have been offered if the countries were seen as less-than-friendly to the United States.

As those countries and others in the region gain strategic importance in the war against terror, analysts say they may use their cooperation as leverage to gain more political recognition and long-term economic assistance.