A private American security company with close links to the U.S. military is conducting an assessment of the defense needs of Sao Tome, a tiny West African island nation poised to become a major oil producer.
A spokesman for MPRI, the private U.S. security company, confirms it dispatched a retired Army officer to Sao Tome earlier this year to conduct the defense assessment.
That officer, retired Army Colonel Raoul Henri Alcala, was identified in Sao Tomean news reports as the leader of what was described as "a team of U.S. military experts," suggesting he was there on official government business.
But Pentagon officials denied any knowledge of Mr. Alcala or his mission. Military spokesmen for the U.S. European Command, responsible for defense affairs in most of Africa, also claimed to have no connection with the retired Colonel.
After repeated inquiries, MPRI, which stands for Military Professional Resources Incorporated, confirmed this week it had sent Colonel Alcala to Sao Tome as a consultant. Spokesman for the firm Rick Kiernan told VOA Sao Tome requested the assessment mission to evaluate its military strengths and weaknesses.
MPRI is now completing its analysis and will submit its findings to authorities in Sao Tome, an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African mainland. The firm hopes it will ultimately receive a formal contract to provide security assistance to Sao Tome's defense establishment. Any such arrangement, along with possible military equipment purchases, will have to be reviewed by U.S. government authorities.
MPRI's previous effort to provide a comprehensive national security overhaul for another oil-rich African country, Equatorial Guinea, was thwarted by U.S. government objections. Those objections were related to human rights abuses in Equatorial Guinea.
However, defense sources indicate no such objections are likely to any eventual deal that might be worked between MPRI and Sao Tome. A recent U.S. State Department report said human rights are generally respected by Sao Tome's government although it also noted, quoting now, "security forces on occasion beat and abused detainees and violently dispersed a demonstration."
With an overall population of only about 180,000, Sao Tome's military is tiny. There are fewer than 1,000 security personnel and many are part-time farmers or fishermen. Its defense budget in 2001 was a mere $400,000.
U.S. military officials have indicated they favor closer defense ties with the island nation, where offshore exploratory oil drilling is expected to begin within 12 months.
The U.S. military's European Command has already dispatched a liaison officer to the island to consult on defense cooperation. The U.S. Navy is expected to send an aircraft carrier strike group into the waters off Sao Tome later this year for possible joint exercises.
For its part, MPRI has been involved for years in providing U.S. military expertise worldwide. It was founded by eight former senior military officers in 1988 and now has offices in several states and foreign countries.
The firm offers basic military training, advice on force development and management, logistics assistance, anti-terrorism expertise as well as peacekeeping and humanitarian aid training.
MPRI has been involved in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Kuwait and Nigeria.