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Organization Formed to Combat Terrorism in Horn of Africa - 2003-01-15

Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen announced earlier this week they are forming an organization to combat terrorism in the Horn of Africa. It is not clear how the group will interact with the U.S. military, which is already in the area to enhance regional security.

The foreign ministers of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Yemen announced the anti-terror pact on Sunday, after a two-day meeting in Sudan's capital, Khartoum.

Sudanese foreign affairs ministry spokesman, Al Sadig al-Magly, says the three countries agreed that they must work together as a group if they want to stop on-going terrorist activities in the region.

"The ministers reiterated their resolve to combat all forms of terrorism and their commitment toward enhancing peace and stability in the Horn and the southern Red Sea region," he said.

Yemen has been particularly worried about an upsurge in terrorist violence in recent months. It has increased security and made numerous arrests of suspected Islamic militants.

In December, three American missionaries working in southern Yemen were killed by suspected Islamic terrorists. Two months earlier, Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network took responsibility for the bombing of a French tanker off the country's coast.

Yemen and Sudan have a long history with the al-Qaida terrorist organization. Yemen is the ancestral homeland of Osama bin Laden's family and many of his associates and followers. During the 1990s, Sudan was a major base of operations for the al-Qaida leader.

African expert Taylor Seybolt at the Institute of Peace in Washington says he welcomes the cooperation between Yemen and Sudan as a sign that the governments want desperately to shed their reputation as terrorist breeding grounds.

"There is certainly always hope that this sort of an agreement will inhibit al-Qaida or any other international terrorist organizations. These organizations that do operate across international borders really require international agreements to oppose them. Single countries simply cannot respond effectively. It does not necessarily mean it will work but it is a good step in the right direction, in my opinion," he said.

Ethiopia says it signed the anti-terror pact because the mostly-Christian nation faces terrorist threats from another neighbor in the Horn, Somalia.

During the mid-1990s, al-Ittiyad al-Islamiya, a Somali group with links to al-Qaida, tried to bomb several hotels in Ethiopia and attempted to kill an Ethiopian government minister, in what the government says was an effort to destabilize the country. Ethiopia says al-Ittiyad is still active in areas along the border between Ethiopia and Somalia.

But how closely this regional group would be willing to work alongside the United States in the war against terrorism is still unclear.

In recent months, the United States has sent more than one thousand troops to the Horn of Africa and to set up a military command headquarters off the coast of Djibouti. The Central Intelligence Agency also has a base in Djibouti from which it could mobilize quickly if al-Qaida leaders are found in the region.

Since the attacks in the United States in September 2001, Yemen has been cooperating with the United States to hunt down al-Qaida leaders and other suspects. Last November, a missile from an unmanned CIA aircraft killed a top al-Qaida figure and five others in Yemen.

But Sudan still is on the U.S. government's list of states that sponsor terrorism.

Mr. Seybolt at the Institute of Peace says he does not expect that Sudan will give the U.S. military the kind of access it enjoys in Yemen. "I rather doubt that the agreement implies that they all have the same attitude toward the American military presence in the region," he said.

Some remaining questions may be answered in the group's next meeting in mid-June in the Yemen capital, Sana'a. The foreign ministers have agreed to meet every six months to compare notes and to discuss strategy.

High on their agenda in June will also be how to promote peaceful solutions for the civil wars raging in Sudan and Somalia. Observers say the long-running wars are complicating the fight against terror by fueling the instability on which terrorism thrives.