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Study Renews Focus on Possible US Military Interest in Sao Tome - 2004-02-19

A U.S.-financed study into the development of a deepwater port and expanded airfield facilities on Sao Tome has again focused attention on possible American military interest in the West African island nation.

Pentagon officials remain tight-lipped about any possible plans they may have for Sao Tome. On Thursday, they dismissed questions about possible U.S. military access to any new port or airport facilities that might be developed on the island as hypothetical.

Their silence follows an announcement by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency that it has awarded grants totaling $800,000 to Sao Tome to fund feasibility studies for the development of a deepwater port and an expansion plan for the island's main airport.

The announcement said the projects are intended to make Sao Tome more accessible for trade and travel. There was no reference to any U.S. defense interest in either study.

But the Pentagon's interest is evident: last September, a top U.S. military commander told reporters Sao Tome is a potentially ideal site for one of the Pentagon's so-called Forward Operating Locations, bases available for temporary use by American forces in an emergency.

Air Force General Charles Wald is deputy commander of the U.S. military's European Command, which is responsible for most of sub-Saharan Africa. He visited Sao Tome last year. He noted it is strategically located in the Gulf of Guinea, close to both west and central Africa, areas where U.S. forces have had to operate on occasion in the past, and might have to operate in the future. He also said it is in a region where stability is needed, especially as U.S. oil imports from West Africa grow.