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Pentagon: No Decision Yet on Military Assistance to Sao Tome - 2002-07-24

A top Pentagon official involved in African affairs says the United States may be prepared to provide military training to naval forces from the tiny but potentially oil-rich island nation of Sao Tome, in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast.

The disclosure of U.S. interest in assisting potentially oil-rich Sao Tome with its coastal defenses comes from Theresa Whelan, director of the Pentagon's Office of African Affairs.

She was commenting in a VOA interview on the visit made this week to Sao Tome by General Carlton Fulford, the four-star Marine who is deputy commander in chief of the United States European Command.

The general was quoted in some press reports as saying the United States will provide training to Sao Tome's armed forces.

But according to Ms. Whelan nothing specific has yet been promised. "Nothing specific on the table right now for Sao Tome," she said. "I think General Fulford was expressing a more general approach that these are things that we are looking at and things that we might be prepared to do in cooperation with the Sao Tomeans."

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 interest in Sao Tome appears to have grown following what U.S. officials describe as "significant" petroleum discoveries in its territorial waters in the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea.

Ms. Whelan said that makes Sao Tome and existing oil-producing countries in West Africa likely candidates for U.S. military assistance targeted specifically at protecting offshore oil facilities. "It is true that we do have legitimate security interests in ensuring that the offshore oil is protected and that the states that own those offshore rigs are able to protect them, so we have discussed the possibility of providing limited amounts of assistance to the coastal navies of such states," she explained.

Ms. Whelan noted that in the late 1980s the United States had a coastal security program for Africa aimed at helping countries patrol fishery zones.

She called that program a "small but important" contribution to keeping small navies operational. She saids that is along the lines of what might be undertaken now in the Gulf of Guinea area.

In the year 2000, the United States imported oil from seven African countries. The principal African sources were Nigeria and Angola, both in the top 10 of all U.S. foreign oil suppliers. The other African sources, in order, were Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, Congo Kinshasa, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

Pentagon officials estimate that 15 percent of the United States' current oil imports now come from African suppliers. They believe it is a number that is likely to grow significantly in the years ahead.