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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 May, 2004, 15:55 GMT 16:55 UK
Nato aids Africa to combat terror
Sahara desert
Militants may be using the Sahara desert to cross borders undetected
Western military chiefs and African officials are trying to identify ways to prevent terror groups like al-Qaeda gaining a foothold in north Africa.

US special forces have already been sent to a number of countries to help train them to tackle militants.

Nato officials are in Mauritania this week for security talks aimed at securing the country's border against infiltration by alleged terrorists.

Some experts believe al-Qaeda cells are already operating in the wider region.

US troops were sent to Mauritania earlier this year to help train local military units. This week's visit by Nato officials is aimed at looking into ways to protect the nation's coastal border.

Although Mauritania has a government sympathetic to the West, there are believed to be a significant number of people in the country who support more extreme Islamic beliefs.

US strategy

US military commanders have told the New York Times that parts of North and West Africa are threatening to become a new base for al-Qaeda.

The newspaper reports that the deployment of special forces is part of a growing US approach to tackle militants linked to al-Qaeda who were pushed out of Afghanistan after the US-led invasion in late 2001.

"We want to be preventative, so that we don't have to put boots on the ground here in North Africa as we did in Afghanistan," the US European Command's chief of counter-terrorism Lt Col Powl Smith told the newspaper.

He said that by helping governments to tackle terror, "we don't become a lightning rod for popular anger that radicals can capitalise on".

Spanish police investigating the 11 March train bombings in Madrid have uncovered alleged links with north Africa, raising concerns about possible future attacks in Europe.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US set up the Pan-Sahel initiative in Mauritania, and neighbours Mali, Chad and Niger.

The BBC's Lara Pawson, in Mali, says Washington is particularly concerned about armed groups which travel large distances in the vast Sahara desert that links the four west African states.

The programme offers training, vehicles, radios and other equipment to help the countries improve security and border surveillance.




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