Algerian insurgents are becoming more active in Africa's remote, ungoverned deserts, and increased cooperation and intelligence-sharing among African nations will be key to averting future attacks by such groups, a top US general said Saturday.
US Major General Thomas Csrnko said the No. 1 threat to the region was Algeria's Salafist Group for Call and Combat, an al-Qaeda affiliated movement that loaded fighters onto a dozen trucks earlier this month and attacked an isolated Mauritanian army outpost near the Algerian and Mali borders.
The surprise assault left 15 Mauritanian soldiers and nine Salafists dead. Csrnko said insurgents from the group, which the US has designated a terrorist organization, fled with captured arms and ammunition.
The Salafists are accused of kidnapping 32 European tourists in the Sahara in 2003 and of carrying out numerous attacks in Algeria itself. Csrnko is the special forces commander for US European Command, or EUCOM, which oversees US military activities in Europe and all of Africa. During the Flintlock exercise, about 1,000 US special forces troops are training 3,000 African soldiers.
Csrnko and others are in West Africa for a two-week US-led joint counterterrorism exercise called Flintlock, taking place June 6-26. The exercises involve nine African nations -- Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal -- a vast area the US is pouring more money and equipment into in a bid to keep terrorists at bay. Africa's "ungoverned" spaces -- particularly deserts where security forces are hard to come by -- are the chief concern of American commanders fearful terrorists may seek refuge there.
Csrnko said Algerian Salafists were conducting supply and smuggling operations within the Sahara region, using well-established, centuries-old trade routes that forge paths through harsh deserts.
Al-Qaeda terror cells are still believed to be active in Afghanistan, launching attacks alongside Taliban rebels. Csrnko said as many as 25 percent of foreign fighters from North Africa were heading to Iraq to fight US forces and their allies. Iraq has become a terrorist magnet in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, with suicide car bomb attacks daily. US officials say a small number of fighters are returning to North Africa as well, trained in guerrilla tactics and bomb-making.
US forces began training armies in Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad in 2003. That effort has been expanded to Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria and Senegal, and its budget will be boosted from US$6 million to US$100 million for five years, starting in 2007.
Csrnko said US forces would aim to train with the same African units in the future with a view toward improving the capabilities of quick reaction forces, not regular armies.
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