February 10, 2006

US trains Mali to fight terrorism in oil region

By Tiemoko Diallo

BAMAKO (Reuters) - U.S. Special Forces are teaching Malian
soldiers how to fight terrorism in the country's northern
desert, a region potentially rich in oil but seen by U.S.
military officials as a sanctuary for Islamic militants.

More than 300 Malian soldiers in the Saharan towns of
Timbuktu and Gao and the capital Bamako will practice
parachuting into the desert, marksmanship, operating under fire
and other activities over the next 50 days, officials said.

"It involves three military units and is part of the
Pan-Sahel Initiative, a vast regional program to combat
terrorism, cross-border banditry and drug trafficking," said
Col. Abdoulaye Coulibaly, chief spokesman for the Malian army.

At least six international firms have won rights to search
for oil under Mali's vast desert as the impoverished West
African nation seeks to match neighbors Algeria, Mauritania and
Niger by striking crude.

But the Sahel region, which stretches from Mauritania on
Africa's western coast through northern Mali, Niger and Chad,
is also synonymous with banditry, smuggling and increasingly --
according to U.S. officials -- international terrorism.

"Several regional terrorist groups now operate with
relative impunity in the vast, uncontrolled northern spaces of
these countries," General Charles Wald, deputy commander of
U.S. European Command, wrote in a U.S. army publication last

"These are sanctuaries that must be denied. Training and
equipping will, if sustained, enable these countries to
eliminate these sanctuaries without direct U.S. involvement."


Chinese state-run oil and gas firm Sinopec Corp, Australian
firms Sphere Investment Ltd, Baraka Mali Ventures Limited and
Trans Ocean Securities, as well as at least two South African
firms have all signed exploration deals in northern Mali over
the past year and a half.

"In securing the desert, we're securing those who are
searching for oil," the Malian army's Coulibaly told Reuters.
"At a time when exploration is getting underway in the zone,
this training is welcome."

The United States has conducted repeated joint training
exercises in countries around the Sahel as part of its
"Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative" (TSCTI), expected
to cost $100 million over five years.

The Sahara has long been infamous for banditry but a more
recent concern for Washington has been the al Qaeda-aligned
Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), Algeria's
largest outlawed Islamic militant group.

U.S. officials fear the group, which is on a U.S. list of
foreign terrorist organizations and which claimed
responsibility for the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in
the Sahara in 2003, has transformed into an international

But critics say Washington's increasingly high-profile
involvement in security in West Africa risks fuelling
resentment of wider U.S. foreign policy and radicalizing some
in a region largely known for moderate forms of Islam.