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Pentagon:  W. Africa Vulnerable to Terror Attacks - 2002-11-14

Hundreds of American troops have been sent to the Horn of Africa for possible anti-terrorist operations. But the Pentagon views West Africa, where there have been no U.S. deployments, as more vulnerable to terrorist penetration.

A senior defense official says the Joint Task Force deployed in the Horn of Africa to coordinate anti-terrorist operations is aimed primarily at Yemen, not at conducting offensive activities in African countries.

The senior official, speaking to VOA on condition of anonymity, says the Djibouti-based Task Force will cooperate with countries like Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Kenya to address concerns about their vulnerability to terrorist penetration in remote border areas.

But the official says the Horn countries are not as vulnerable as those in the Sahel region, which the Pentagon intends to work with closely on security issues. Officials say security assistance planning is under way involving four Sahel countries: Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The official says that while the problems of remote, ungoverned areas are similar between the Horn and Sahel, Horn countries have, what the official terms, more capable military forces.

The senior official tells VOA the Sahel problem is viewed as much more serious because there is, in the official's view, an almost total lack of capability to deal with frontier security threats.

The official says "you cannot look at the Sahel region and not be concerned."

The official's comments to VOA follow a warning by another top Pentagon official that U.S. troops could conceivably move into remote areas without the permission of governments.

"There may be circumstances where we go into an ungoverned area in pursuit of al-Qaida," said Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon's top spokeswoman.

But defense officials are all but ruling out military deployments in West Africa like those in the Horn, soon to number more than 1,000 U.S. personnel with nearly 2,000 more offshore.

Instead they say the Pentagon will work with countries in West Africa, offering training and possibly equipment.

Pentagon spokeswoman Clarke makes no specific mention of West Africa, but acknowledges U.S. defense officials are engaged with a variety of countries with a single goal.

"We are working with a lot of different countries around the world, different ways, but we are working with a lot of different countries in trying to figure out the appropriate ways to root out al-Qaida in their backyards," she said.

Officials have expressed concern that al-Qaida operatives might slip into countries like Somalia or Sudan. They have also expressed concern about possible terrorist arms shipments moving through the region.

In West Africa, intelligence sources have recently identified an arms-smuggling group operating between Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania, with suspected links to al-Qaida. U.S. Officials are also concerned the presence of terrorist groups in Algeria, Libya, and Sudan could pose a threat to countries like Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.