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US General:  Sao Tome Possible Site for 'Forward Operating Location' - 2003-09-04

A top U.S. commander says he views the African island nation of Sao Tome as a potentially ideal site for one of the military's so-called Forward Operating Locations, facilities available for temporary use by American forces in an emergency.

Air Force General Charles Wald compares Sao Tome to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a strategically-placed base used heavily by U.S. forces for staging attacks during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Sao Tome's case, General Wald tells reporters, it is its location on the Equator, in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, close to both West and Central Africa, that makes it potentially attractive as a possible U.S. military Forward Operating Location.

The deputy commander of the U.S. military's European Command, responsible for most of Africa, recently visited Sao Tome. He calls the area where it is located a region where stability is needed, especially for economic reasons as U.S. oil imports from Africa grow.

Forward Operating Locations are not permanent military bases. They are instead facilities that could be used temporarily if needed in an emergency. They might consist of hangars or other warehouse-type equipment storage buildings along with fuel facilities. They would not be continuously occupied by U.S. military personnel.

But while General Wald, voicing his personal views to defense writers earlier this week, calls Sao Tome one of his favorite possible sites, another senior defense official emphasizes that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has not yet approved the Forward Operating Location concept for Africa.

This official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, says the military's European Command may have held internal discussions about the issue.

But the official says no formal proposals have yet been sent to the Pentagon for review.

This is not the first time Sao Tome has been mentioned as a potential site for U.S. military facilities. In the past, rumors have circulated that the United States might establish a naval base there or perhaps operate a fleet in the Gulf of Guinea.

But all Pentagon officials have been willing to say so far is that the United States might be prepared to provide military training to Sao Tome's own naval forces.

The former Portuguese colony consisting of two main islands has benefited in recent years from a small U.S. military assistance program, primarily involving English language training for soldiers.

However U.S. officials concede American interest in Sao Tome has grown following the discovery of significant petroleum deposits in its territorial waters.