Archive for Wednesday, December 11, 2002

U.S. builds military presence in Africa

December 11, 2002

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— Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld won new assurances of support from Eritrea and Ethiopia on Tuesday for the Bush administration's plan to open a new front in the war on terrorism in the turbulent Horn of Africa at the same time that it prepares for a war with Iraq.

A U.S. military buildup is under way in Djibouti, apparently for operations against followers of Osama bin Laden in neighboring countries and in bin Laden's native Yemen nearby. American forces will be bolstered in the next few days when a 300-person U.S. regional command arrives, led by a Marine Corps general.

That new regional command, based offshore on the USS Mount Whitney assault ship, soon may send the 800 American special operations troops in Djibouti against al-Qaida fugitives hiding in the Horn of Africa or in Yemen, about 25 miles across the Bab el Mandeb strait.

A U.S. official in Washington said Tuesday that about a dozen Scud-type missiles and "missile-related components" had been found aboard a North Korean ship that was seized in the Arabian Sea, about 600 miles east of the Horn of Africa.

The ship was believed to be heading to Yemen, but the government of Yemen, which has aided the U.S. war on terrorism recently, was not necessarily the intended recipient, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The missiles were hidden in containers buried in cement.

"U.S. intelligence had been tracking this (vessel) for a period of weeks," the official said. He said the North Korean ship was flying under the flag of another nation, which he would not identify.

The people in the Horn of Africa region have been crushed by poverty, hunger, drought, the HIV-AIDS epidemic and lawlessness. Long coasts, porous borders, unrest and corruption have made the area a hub for arms and drug running and a haven for al-Qaida operatives.

The region is important to the United States because it abuts sea lanes used by Persian Gulf-bound American warships and by tankers that transport petroleum supplies.

Rumsfeld, speaking after talks with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Asmara, said the United States and its partners must work to prevent al-Qaida and other Islamic extremists from destabilizing the region and killing large numbers of innocent people.

But extending the war on terrorism to the Horn of Africa is risky. American military forces make new targets for al-Qaida bombers. The United States also would be aligning with governments that it has accused of human rights abuses.

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