U.S. to upgrade military ties with Algeria

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

The Bush administration plans to expand military ties to Algeria.

[Special operations forces in Algeria reported they had released the last of a group of Western tourists kidnapped by a terrorist group aligned with Al Qaida.]

U.S. officials said they hope to accelerate and expand sales of military equipment to the North African state as well as training and visits over the next year. They said the State Department and the Defense Department have been discussing the issue with the regime of President Abdul Aziz Bouteflika.

The U.S. military sales will depend on Algeria's commitment to human rights, officials said. They said an improvement in Algeria's human rights record would prompt the sale of lethal combat systems to Algeria.

"I will work to expand relations, keeping in mind that progress in our bilateral relationship, including on the military side, should both reflect and encourage Algeria's own efforts to implement significant reforms," Richard Erdman, nominated as the next U.S. ambassador to Algeria, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Monday.

Last year, the State Department approved the export of night-vision military systems to Algeria. The department did not detail the type and amount of systems sold.

Officials said Algeria has demonstrated its commitment as a U.S. ally against Al Qaida. They said Algeria has been one of the most helpful countries in North Africa regarding the extradition of insurgents wanted by the United States and intelligence exchanges on Al Qaida and related groups.

"As a large, populous, and geographically strategic country with a wealth of human and mineral resources, Algeria is poised to play a key role both in the Arab world and in Africa," Erdman said. "Working in partnership toward the building of a stable, secure, and democratizing Algeria is thus essential to promoting U.S. strategic objectives in both regions."

Algeria has been negotiating with such Western countries as Britain, France and the United States for a range of military systems. Officials said Algiers seeks to bolster night-vision and all-weather combat aircraft capability as well as radars and ground-based sensors to track Islamic insurgents in mountainous and wooded areas. Meanwhile Algeria has released the last of the Western tourists abducted by an Islamic insurgency group linked to Al Qaida.

Algerian special operations forces raided a stronghold of the Salafist Brigade for Combat and Call and freed 15 European tourists who had been held captive. Algerian security sources said the raid took place near the town of Illizi, located in the Sahara desert near the Libyan border.

Few details were released on the military operation. But both Algerian sources and Western diplomats said the raid proceeded smoothly.

On Monday, however, an Algerian commander denied that the second group of Western tourists was released. He would not elaborate.

Last week, Algerian forces fought Salafist abductors and freed a group of 17 tourists held in a different part of the Sahara. At the time, Algerian officials said that virtually all of the Salafist captors were killed.

Western diplomats said the Salafists had demanded a ransom for the release of the Western tourists, kidnapped in late February as they were crossing the Sahara. They said negotiations were attempted, but Algeria decided to storm the strongholds once they were located.

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