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Pentagon to Step Up Cooperation With Algeria in War on Terrorism - 2004-03-10

More details have emerged about al-Qaida's terrorist presence in Africa and the growing engagement of the U.S. military in counter-terrorist activities with government forces in Northern and Western parts of the continent.

A senior U.S. military commander says American forces are working, as he puts it, "heavily" with Algerian troops in the war on terrorism.

The senior official is General Charles Wald, Deputy Commander of the U.S. European Command, which is responsible for military activities in most of Africa. He was speaking this week in Washington in a roundtable discussion with a select group of reporters. A transcript of the session was obtained by VOA.

General Wald gives few details of the extent of U.S. cooperation with Algeria other than to say "we have every intention in the world to help them where we can."

He says the assistance might not always be with actual U.S. troop deployments but with information sharing.

Military officials say there are no U.S. troops in Algeria at present. But General Wald forecasts increased military cooperation in the future and notes Algeria's defense chief and others from North Africa and the Sahel region will visit the European Command in Stuttgart, Germany March 22 for talks.

General Wald recently concluded a week-long, 11-country trip through Africa which he says included two stops in Algeria, Algiers and Tamanrasset, a town in southern Algeria close to the border with Mali, where terrorists linked to al-Qaida have been active.

Those terrorists are members of a group called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. U.S. officials have voiced concern about the group's activities.

But General Wald says al-Qaida itself, in his words, "has an interest in North Africa" and he says "They have an interest in the Sahel area, definitely." He says al-Qaida's interest may even extend to illegal diamond-trafficking out of Sierra Leone as a funding source for its terrorist operations. He calls the group's interest in North and West Africa "a bad signal."

Still, General Wald says the unfolding U.S. effort to cooperate militarily with African countries in the war against terrorism is paying off.

He says the two 200 man Special Operations teams engaged in counter-terrorism training in Mali and Mauritania have already enjoyed what he terms a "huge payback."

He says there have been, quoting now, "some successes in real terms" resulting from the training, but declines to give any details.

The training is part of a State Department program called the Pan Sahel Initiative. It is ending in Mali and Mauritania this month but will resume later in the year in Chad and Niger.

There was a report last week in a Malian newspaper (Bamako Info-Matin) alleging that the presence of U.S. troops involved in the counter-terror training in the northern town of Gao had caused frustration among the local Muslim population.

U.S. officials have dismissed the charges, asserting there is no evidence to support them.