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Pentagon to Aid W. African Countries with Border Security - 2002-11-13

The Pentagon is working with four West African governments to improve their border security capabilities against terrorist penetration. The move follows the disclosure of a possible al-Qaida connection in the Sahel area.

A senior Defense Department official says the Pentagon is working with Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger to improve their security forces' ability to control border areas and to respond to suspicious activities in remote frontier sites.

The senior official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, says the Pentagon believes the four countries are particularly vulnerable because they have, what the official terms, very porous borders and vast chunks of territory where the governments have limited or no control.

The official says this makes the region a "great operating area" for terrorists, arms smugglers and other criminal groups interested in avoiding detection. The official also notes the four countries border nations like Sudan, Libya, and Algeria that harbor known terrorist groups.

The official describes the Pentagon's assistance effort as a long-term program that also involves the State Department and other agencies. The official says a key aim is to get the countries to work together and also to get individual agencies in the separate countries, like Ministries of Defense and Interior, to cooperate.

The official says the assistance effort is still in the planning and discussion stage. But the official indicates it will involve military training and possibly equipment sales. The official gives no details, but suggests the emphasis will be on training and equipment that improves the ability of security forces in the region to move quickly into remote areas and to communicate.

The senior defense official declines comment directly on a VOA report earlier this week that quoted intelligence sources as saying an al-Qaida terrorist connection has been identified in West Africa that could be a threat to stability in that region.

The sources said a man they identified as a former Algerian Army Colonel named Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been operating an arms smuggling network that has been floating between Algeria, Mali and Mauritania. They said the group, known by the initials MBM, has conducted arms deals with various radical Islamic organizations, including Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which has been linked directly to al-Qaida.

The sources tell VOA that authorities in Mali have staged at least one military action against the group. They say the action failed to result in the death or capture of any of the suspected terrorists. But they say the action, in the words of one intelligence source, "sent a clear message" to the Belmokhtar organization.