The United States military command for Africa, known as AFRICOM, is offering enhanced support for African Union peace and security initiatives. The commander, General William Ward, hailed Ethiopia's decision to supply badly-needed helicopters to the joint AU/United Nations peacekeeping mission in Darfur.
He met Tuesday with African Union Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra for talks on continental hot spots, including Sudan and Somalia. The meeting came as Somalia's Transitional Federal Government, backed by the AU peacekeeping force AMISOM, is preparing an offensive against rebel forces that control much of the country.
But speaking to VOA, General Ward emphasized AFRICOM's role in Somalia is strictly limited to indirect support for the U.N.-backed government.
"We certainly support those who are in fact supportive of the Transitional Federal Government, the African Union, AMISOM missions. We do things in support of those attempts to bring about stability. Insofar as any direct involvement in Somalia, that's not the role of my command," he said.
The U.S. Africa command is perceived in some quarters as a fighting force involved in one way or another in Somalia and other African conflict zones. But General Ward says categorically, AFRICOM has no combat role.
"There are things I'm aware of, things my command is not responsible for. Our activities on the continent, in Somalia, are widespread, and so there are probably things that occur that may be publicly perceived as done by the United States Africa command, but that's just not the case," he said.
The AFRICOM commander expressed concern about the potential for violence surrounding the April elections in Sudan. He praised Ethiopia's decision to immediately dispatch five tactical helicopters to Darfur to boost the capabilities of joint AU/UN peacekeeping mission known as UNAMID.
"Those helicopters, and the mobility they provide, will be an absolutely value added contribution to the UNAMID mission, certainly from the standpoint of mobility, to get around to places that might otherwise be inaccessible, those helicopters will be a very great added contribution to UNAMID's efforts," he said.
AFRICOM is the newest of the U.S. regional military commands. General Ward oversees a staff of about 600 military personnel and 600 civilians headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany.
In a policy speech last July in the Ghanaian capital, Accra, U.S. President Barack Obama called Africa's conflicts 'not regional, but global challenges'. He said AFRICOM is focused not on gaining a foothold in Africa, but on confronting those common challenges to enhance security worldwide.