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US, Nigerian Military Exercises Under Way  - 2004-09-15

Military exercises are under way between the United States and Nigeria in a region of the West African nation where most of the country's daily output of 2.5 million barrels of crude are produced. The U.S. military continues to focus on improving security in a region expected to become a growing source of American oil.

These joint exercises involve about 10 U.S. Navy Seals training with an amphibious Nigerian battalion in and around the Nigerian seaport of Calabar.

"These two navies, they're going to practice a wide variety of skills," said Major Holly Silkman.

While small, U.S. military spokeswoman Major Holly Silkman says the exercises are taking place in the Niger Delta, a region prone to ethnic unrest and attacks by saboteurs on oil installations there.

"Combating piracy in that area would certainly be a very positive and possible side effect of training," she said.

One out of every five barrels of oil imported into the United States comes from Nigeria. And, with the nation expected to rely even more on West African oil in the coming years, security in the area is taking on increasing importance for the U.S. military.

No one from the Nigerian government responded to requests for an interview. But Peter Lewis, professor of African politics at Washington's American University, thinks oil smuggling by armed groups in the region has reached such proportions that it has now become a national security issue for the Nigerian government.

"There is a good deal of evidence that they are exchanging supplies of oil for significantly heavier weaponry so it's becoming a major security problem and it's becoming a much more heavily militarized region of the country and I think the Nigerians are very concerned about getting a handle on it," he said.

In fact, the deputy commander of all American forces in West Africa, Air Force General Charles Wald, has been to the region several times this year on missions related to security. He spoke about the goals of these military training exercises during a recent stop in Washington.

"We're trying to help them, the countries in that region, mainly in the Gulf of Guinea countries, actually develop their own security capability," said General Wald. "We don't intend for the United States to have ships stationed off there permanently to defend the Gulf of Guinea. We think that's the job of the West African countries."

More U.S. military training missions, and more visits by American military generals to the region are planned for the months ahead.