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US Troops Seek to Fight Potential Terrorism in Kenya by Helping Poor Communities - 2003-09-04

In recent weeks, U.S. troops of the Djibouti-based anti-terror Task Force in East Africa have been in Kenya, providing humanitarian assistance in several local communities. The Americans are targeting communities which are not only needy, but are also believed to be vulnerable to the influence of potential terrorists.

Security was visibly tight in the northeastern district of Wajir, as the new U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Mark Bellamy, arrived early Wednesday morning, accompanied by two Kenyan generals.

Ordinarily, this far-flung, dusty town near Kenya's border with Somalia, would never have hosted such high-level visitors. Most of Wajir's 350,000 people are poor and nomadic, relying on camels, goats, and cattle to sustain them in the harsh desert environment.

But Ambassador Bellamy notes that these are not ordinary times, especially for Kenyans. In the past five years, terrorists with links to the al-Qaida network have claimed responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of people in bombings in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and in the coastal town of Mombasa.

Last October, Kenya joined Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Yemen as a coalition partner in the U.S.-led anti-terror Task Force for the Horn of Africa. The task force was created late last year.

To counter the threat of terrorism, U.S. anti-terror training teams have been deployed to Kenya and other coalition countries to work with their militaries and security forces. But Ambassador Bellamy says he believes Kenya's troubles are not over. "There is a continuing threat in Kenya, and in East Africa in general, from terrorist organizations," he said.

U.S. officials believe terrorists are planning future attacks in neighboring Somalia, a lawless, war-torn country sharing a long, porous border with Kenya.

Ambassador Bellamy acknowledges that in part, it is Wajir's proximity to that border that has prompted him and several dozen U.S. troops from the Task Force to come here.

U.S. officials say they firmly believes humanitarian efforts could win the cooperation of the local people to capture potential terrorists and to ensure that terrorist activities are reported before events occur.

In recent weeks members of the anti-terror task force, have been giving free medical examinations in Wajir, and handing out free medicine to thousands of people.

And military personnel with veterinary backgrounds have been enlisted to give badly-needed medical care to the local livestock as well.

The effort here is similar to those U.S. troops have recently been conducting in the tiny east African country of Djibouti, where the anti-terror task force is based. Djibouti is close to Yemen, long considered a breeding ground for al-Qaida terrorists.

While many local people have praised the military's humanitarian relief work as lifesaving, others have criticized it as being nothing more than a self-serving campaign to keep the local people from turning against the United States.

Ambassador Bellamy says he understands the skepticism, but believes the U.S. military must continue the humanitarian work in such communities in order to show good faith and good will.

"A part of what we're trying to do is to provide a reassuring presence here as well as to demonstrate that the United States' military and the United States government can and are happy to perform helpful humanitarian missions," he said. "So if that's [winning the] hearts and minds, I suppose so."

Most people in Wajir say they are grateful for the help the U.S. troops have been giving to them in the past few weeks. But it is clear they are also expecting the United States to provide much more long-term assistance.

During the U.S. ambassador's visit, the district commissioner of Wajir presented U.S. officials with a long list of things he says the district urgently needs. The list includes new roads, schools, wells, libraries, and hospitals.

As one U.S. official noted, the United States could win the people's hearts and minds here, but it will be a long and expensive endeavor.