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01.10.2020 Algeria

Pentagon chief visits Algeria for North Africa security talks

By Philippe Agret, Sylvie Lanteaume with Philippe Agret in Tunis
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper is touring North African states and has arrived in Algeria after a stop in Tunisia and ahead of visiting Morocco to discuss security issues.  By FETHI BELAID (AFP)
LISTEN OCT 1, 2020
US Defence Secretary Mark Esper is touring North African states and has arrived in Algeria after a stop in Tunisia and ahead of visiting Morocco to discuss security issues. By FETHI BELAID (AFP)

US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on Thursday started a visit to Algeria to renew their alliance as the North African state tries to mediate in war-ravaged Libya and Mali while battling extremists at home.

Esper, the first American defence chief to visit Algiers since 2006, hopes "to deepen cooperation with Algeria on key regional security issues, such as the threat posed by extremist groups", a senior US military official said.

The minister, on a North Africa tour, arrived in Algiers after talks in neighbouring Tunisia and he is scheduled to travel on to Morocco.

He was to meet Algeria's President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and the chief of staff, General Said Chanegriha, after having laid a wreath at the country's independence war memorial overlooking Algiers.

"Algeria is a committed counter-terrorism partner," General Stephen Townsend, head of US Africa Command, said on a recent visit to Algiers.

US military officials frequently visit Tunisia and Morocco, where defence cooperation with Washington is well established.

But Esper became the first defence secretary to visit Algeria, an ally of Russia and China, since Donald Rumsfeld almost 15 years ago.

"Strengthening this relationship is very important to us," Townsend said.

"Degrading violent extremist organisations... and enhancing regional stability is a mutual must."

'Pivotal state'

Algeria is trying to reactivate its role on the regional diplomatic scene, including as a mediator in the conflicts in Mali and Libya.

Jihadist groups in Libya and the wider Sahel region have become an increasing concern since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

Conflict in Libya since then has sucked in multiple nations backing opposing forces, including Turkey and Egypt.

Mali, supported by France and UN peacekeepers, is struggling with an eight-year-old Islamist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.

"The Americans want to reposition themselves in the region, which has seen the arrival of new players like Turkey," said Algerian political scientist Mansour Kedidir.

"Algeria has always been considered by the Americans as a 'pivotal state' whose vulnerability can engulf the whole region if it is affected by jihadists."

The US and Algeria have historic ties -- a treaty of friendship was signed in 1795 -- while during the 1954-1962 war of independence from colonial rulers France, Washington reportedly pressured Paris to negotiate with Algerian nationalists.

"The United States has a strong bilateral security relationship with Algeria that dates at least to the early days of the Global War on Terror," said Michael Shurkin, from the California-based RAND Corporation policy think-tank.

The US relationship is crucial for another reason, Shurkin noted.

"The US role must also be seen in the context of Algeria's reluctance to work with France, which makes the US necessary for France with respect to French hopes for an integrated regional response to jihadism," Shurkin said.

France has 5,100 soldiers deployed across the Sahel as part of its anti-jihadist Operation Barkhane.

Washington is also likely interested in selling weapons to Algeria, which currently receives some 90 percent of its supplies in this segment from Russia.

Just ahead of Esper's planned visit, Chanegriha met with a top Russian military delegation for discussions on the state of "military cooperation between the two countries", Algeria's defence ministry said.


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