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Senior US Military Official Visits Niger - 2003-08-20

A senior U.S. military commander has visited Niger, whose leaders have been voicing fresh complaints over the now-discredited U.S. and British claims linking the West African country to a uranium deal with Iraq.

Four-star Air Force General Charles Wald flew into Niger last week for brief stop en route to Central Africa.

The previously undisclosed visit by the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command was described by a military spokesman as a refueling stop.

But the spokesman told VOA General Wald met officials from Niger's ministry of defense. However, the spokesman said their talks did not cover any possible new U.S. security assistance programs or military training proposals.

The stopover by the senior U.S. commander follows complaints by Niger's president, Mamadou Tandja, that his country has been dragged unfairly into the news because of controversial American and British government claims that it had secret uranium dealings with Iraq.

The president's complaints were voiced following a visit to Niger by another prominent U.S. figure, former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen.

Mr. Cohen now has a private consulting firm which represents several African governments in dealings in the United States. Among them is the government of Niger.

Responding to a VOA inquiry, Mr. Cohen confirmed the visit.

But he denied going there to transmit any message on behalf of the United States government - an allegation made recently by a British newspaper.

The London Sunday Telegraph quoted senior officials in Niger as claiming the message was intended to get the country's leaders to stop complaining about the uranium sales allegations made by Britain and the United States linking Niger to Saddam Hussein's now-deposed regime.

In the lead-up to the war with Iraq, both President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair cited evidence purporting to show Baghdad was seeking uranium from Niger in order to reconstitute its nuclear weapons program.

But the primary evidence, documents allegedly spelling out the terms of a sales agreement, was eventually determined to be fabricated. U.S. intelligence officials subsequently said they had doubts about the evidence but the Bush administration still used it in making its case for war against Iraq.

In his message to VOA, Mr. Cohen did not discuss the purpose of his visit to Niger but stressed he is a private businessman. The State Department had no comment on his activities.