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US Counterterrorism Training for W. Africa Gets Under Way - 2003-11-14

A special U.S. counterterrorism training program for West Africa is at last under way a year after it was announced.

The initiative is a multimillion dollar security training and equipment program to assist Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in countering terrorist operations.

The program, funded by the State Department and carried out by the Pentagon, got under way this month in Mali and will continue in the other three countries over the next several months.

Army Colonel John Schnibben, operations director at the U.S. military's European Command, responsible for most of sub-Saharan Africa, says the effort could have a big pay-off for the United States and its Sahel partners.

"It's a proactive approach to the war on terrorism that maybe if we spend a little bit of effort now, a few people now, in some of the small, focused programs throughout the AOR [area of responsibility], it would prevent us from having to deal with a larger problem later on," he said.

Colonel Schnibben says the initial training emphasis is on small-unit tactics so security forces in the four African countries will be better able to stop the formation of terrorist cells early instead of letting them fester.

Military officials say the training will also cover other soldiering skills and first-aid training. The equipment being turned over by the United States includes uniforms and helmets, generators, fuel containers, communications gear and medical supplies.

Pentagon officials have called Africa an area of growing concern because it is a continent where terrorist groups could take advantage of weak governments and porous borders. They say this is particularly true in the Sahel region, where terrorists with suspected links to al-Qaida have been operating in remote frontier areas among ethnic groups that are predominantly Islamic.

Implementation of the initiative comes after some U.S. government sources expressed concern that officials in the four targeted Sahel countries promised the counter-terrorism training and assistance might be growing impatient.

Those sources told VOA last June they believed two stories about alleged terrorist threats aimed against the U.S. embassy in Mali may have been concocted by Malian authorities anxious to obtain the pledged security aid.