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US Military Forces Provide Support for Chad Anti-Terror Operation - 2004-03-12

U.S. military experts provided critical support this week, as security forces in the African country of Chad clashed with members of a predominantly-Algerian, al-Qaida-linked terrorist group, dealing it a possibly crippling blow.

U.S. officials say a Navy P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft played a key role in guiding troops in Chad to a remote area in the country's far north, close to the border with Niger.

There, in two days of fighting this week, 43 suspected members of the feared Algerian terrorist movement known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat were killed.

Chad's government says the dead include militants from Algeria, Niger and Mali. Five men were captured, including one man from Chad. Three government soldiers were killed in the operation, in which U.S. officials say American troops played no direct role in the actual fighting, only support in the form of intelligence, communications and reconnaissance.

The U.S. officials, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, indicate the group, led by a former Algerian soldier named Saifi Ammari and nicknamed "the Para," had been tracked across the Sahara from its bases in the Algeria-Mali border area.

They say they are attempting to confirm whether "the Para" was among those killed in the shoot-out in Chad.

The officials say it is hard to determine whether the clash has dealt a fatal blow to the Salafist terror group.

But one military source tells VOA, it's fair to say the group's numbers have been "significantly decreased."

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher congratulated the government of Chad on the successful mission.

"I think it shows that foreign governments can operate successfully against terrorists and that's the key to defeating terrorists worldwide," he said.

The incident marks the biggest publicized success in an otherwise largely clandestine U.S.-led counter-terrorist operation in the Sahara region. That operation has primarily consisted of intelligence-sharing and surveillance on the U.S. side, with local security forces providing on-the-ground combat assets.

But previously, the Voice of America reported U.S. forces considered a possible air strike against "the Para" and his Salafist militants.

U.S. Special Operations forces have been training soldiers in Mali and Mauritania in counter-terrorist tactics in a State Department sponsored program called the Pan-Sahel Initiative. The training in those two countries ends this month. It will continue later this year in Chad and Niger.

U.S. officials indicate the training program may eventually be expanded to include Algeria and other North African countries.