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Rumsfeld Courts Horn of Africa

December 10, 2002

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ASMARA, Eritrea (AP) _ Sharpening the U.S. focus on the Horn of Africa as a haven for terrorists, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld arrived in the Eritrean capital on Tuesday to discuss expanding military cooperation and to visit American troops training in neighboring deserts.

Rumsfeld was visiting Ethiopia and Djibouti as well as Eritrea. The three impoverished nations are neighbors in an unstable region that lies across the Red Sea from Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden.

Later in the week, Rumsfeld was headed to the oil-rich sheikdom of Qatar in the Persian Gulf to get a firsthand look at a new U.S. military command post headed by Gen. Tommy Franks.

Franks and hundreds of his battle staff are conducting an exercise this week to test the command post’s ability to communicate with its naval, land and air components elsewhere in the Gulf. It is widely seen as a practice run for a possible American-led war against Iraq, although no combat troops are involved.

In Asmara, the Eritrean capital, Rumsfeld was meeting with President Isaias Afwerki and other government officials.

In an interview en route from Washington, Rumsfeld said the Bush administration was pleased at the cooperation of Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti in the war on terrorism. He left open the possibility of expanding the U.S. military presence in the area but said no decisions were imminent.

``I’m not here to engage in transactions,″ he said. ``I’m not here to put pressure on anybody. I’m here to demonstrate that the United States values what these countries are doing.″

So far the United States has only agreed to use Camp Le Monier in the desert hinterland of Djibouti.

The port at Assab, on the southern tip of Eritrea, is one of the largest on the Red Sea. When Franks _ commander of all U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia _ visited Assab in March the government offered to host American forces on its soil.

``It’s not so much a matter of saying `no,‴ Rumsfeld said, adding, ``It’s something that evolves over time.″

The Pentagon recently established a specially tailored military force, called Joint Task Force Horn of Africa, to oversee anti-terrorist operations in the region. It is led Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Sattler, whose headquarters is the USS Mount Whitney, a command ship newly arrived in the area.

Rumsfeld indicated the United States is in the Horn of Africa for the long haul. He said his decision to visit the area should be seen as an indication that the war on terrorism is truly global.

``The fact that it is going to be a long war and the fact that it is a distinctly different kind of war is emphasized by the fact that we absolutely require the cooperation of countries of all sizes on each continent on the face of the Earth if we are going to be successful,″ he said.

During the Cold War the United States operated a listening post from Asmara. It was known as Kagnew Station and run by the Army Security Agency, a forerunner of the National Security Agency.

In neighboring Djibouti, hundreds of American troops have been training for months. Many are at Camp LeMonier, a French air base. Although some U.S. combat forces operated from Djibouti during the conflict in Somalia in the early 1990s, it has taken on added importance in the war on terrorism.

Djibouti is close to Yemen and on the Bab el Mandeb Strait, a choke-point where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden. It’s not far from Yemen’s port of Aden, where the USS Cole was attacked by terrorists in October 2000, killing 17 sailors.

Rumsfeld said he has no doubt that some al-Qaida terrorists are hiding in the Horn of Africa, although he mentioned no numbers and named no countries.

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