U.S. military officials say an HIV/AIDS prevention program is being used as "leverage" to forge a new defense relationship with Angola.

The first African countries chosen as beneficiaries of the U.S. military HIV prevention program include such powerhouses as Nigeria and South Africa.

But the Defense Department's published management plan for the initiative said Angola has also been included in the first group because, in the words of the statement, "HIV programs will be used to leverage a new defense relationship."

Pentagon officials concede the use of the word "leverage" may be an unfortunate choice for what is essentially a humanitarian assistance program.

But the senior African affairs official at the Defense Department, Michael Westphal, dismisses suggestions of any sinister U.S. motives.

In an impromptu interview with VOA, Mr. Westphal said political divisions in the United States over which side to back in Angola's long-running civil war have effectively blocked any more substantive military exchanges.

But Mr. Westphal has said Angola, with its vast oil resources, is an important country and military health assistance is a program that is non-controversial. With a ceasefire taking effect in Angola following the death of rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, he says the next U.S. military assistance may focus on the planned demobilization of UNITA rebel fighters or their integration into Angola's national army.

According to the Pentagon, the U.S. offer of assistance to Angola's military to develop an HIV/AIDS awareness program was first made in December of 2000. In April last year, U.S. defense officials provided audio-visual and computer equipment to the Angolan army for HIV - AIDS education efforts. The Pentagon said it will later provide training in the area of infectious disease treatment and laboratory procedures.

Mr. Westphal will be traveling to Angola later this month.

While the overall program so far has only directly involved a handful of countries, others have been approached. Mr. Westphal outlines the program.

"It's been ongoing for about two years. It started off last year with $10 million and this year we have $14 million. We have approached 19 countries in Africa, basically working on, with our military to their military, in developing prevention programs. Five of them currently we have active programs.

Mr. Westphal said the plan eventually foresees offers of assistance to virtually every country on the continent.

The Pentagon notes the HIV/AIDS problem has affected nearly all areas of the world but none has been so devastated as sub-Saharan Africa. The Pentagon said uniformed military personnel on the continent are particularly at risk because of the possibility of long deployments, travel into other areas and conflict situations.

The Pentagon is working with other U.S. agencies as part of a broader administration HIV/AIDS prevention effort.