Rice meets with terror-fighting allies in Africa

Rice meets with terror-fighting allies in Africa

The Associated Press, September 6, 2008

ALGIERS, Algeria: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for closer anti-terrorism coordination with the North African leaders she met Saturday, while also saying the U.S. would work to return Guantanamo detainees to their home countries « as soon we possibly can. »

Cooperation with North African allies is good, Rice said.

« But there is always more that you can do to tighten sharing of information and make sure you have all the right channels to give technical support » against terrorism, she said.

Rice’s three-day visit to North Africa is her first as secretary of state to this region of increasing strategic importance in terms of oil resources, emigration and terrorism. It comes as the threat posed by militants in North Africa has become « even more salient in the recent months, » she said.

Rice was in Libya for a landmark visit on Friday that closed 30 years of bitter confrontation with Moammar Ghadafi’s regime before heading Saturday to Tunisia and Algeria for talks with the countries’ presidents. She said the meetings all raised the issue of North African detainees in Guantanamo, both regarding those still held at the U.S. military prison and those returned to their home countries.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has called on Rice to press the Algerian government on the well-being and status of former Guantanamo detainees, several of whom went missing or were held in jail without access to a lawyer or their families after recently returning to Algeria.

Many detainees have expressed fear that they will face abuse if sent to their native countries, according to human rights groups who dismiss as worthless diplomatic assurances they will be treated humanely.

Rice said the U.S. was coordinating with North African governments to empty Guantanamo.

« We would like to move as much of the population of Guantanamo out as soon as we possibly can, » she told reporters after a lengthy meeting with Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. « We would like to, but we also have to remember that we have an obligation not to have dangerous people on the streets. »

She said transfers to home countries would be conducted « in a way that is rigorous, that gets the protections that we need and that the detainees need. »

Dozens of North Africans are thought to be still held in Guantanamo prison. For those who have already been sent home, their status varies widely, from near-immediate release to prolonged incommunicado detentions.

This issue is especially sensitive in Algeria, which faces the biggest terrorism threat in the region and where secular-leaning security forces face off with Islamic militants on a near-daily basis.

Extremist violence has surged in Algeria since 2006, when a radical group left over from a civil war in the 1990s joined Osama bin Laden’s terror network under the name Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa.

A string of suicide bombings, ambushes and gunbattles killed at least 107 Algerians in August alone, according to an Associated Press count.

Meanwhile, the Algerian media reported Saturday that a senior Algerian terror chief was ambushed and killed by the army a day earlier.

Highlighting the dangers in the region, an al-Qaida-related Web site also posted a message this week calling on militants to kill Rice during her North Africa trip. The U.S. State Department said the threat had not changed Rice’s travel plans.

Rice said she also discussed with Bouteflika how to boost economic ties with Algeria, a key oil- and gas-producing nation, as well as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Bouteflika « is truly one of the wise men » in the region and the Arab world, she said.

Earlier Saturday, she pressed for democratic changes during a meeting with Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. « We talked about internal matters here in Tunisia and about the course of reform, » Rice said.

Ben Ali has held power since a bloodless palace coup in 1987 and won several landslide electoral victories tainted by charges of fraud. He is expected to run for a fifth term next year.

« There have been some political reforms, » Rice told reporters while flying to Algiers. But, she added, « we have been very clear that we would hope that Tunisia would do more. »

Rice also said the U.S. and Tunisia were « good friends » and that she had had « very good discussions about internal and external matters, » including « the circumstances here in the region in terms of security and counterterrorism. » She praised « the great progress » women have made in the tourist-friendly and relatively liberal Muslim country.

Rice was leaving Algeria late Saturday for Morocco, after sharing with President Bouteflika the « iftar, » a traditional Muslim dinner that breaks the day’s fast observed during the holy month of Ramadan.