The United States is committed to a long-term partnership fighting terrorism in the Horn of Africa, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday. Leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea pledged support but struck no new deals on U.S. access.
Rumsfeld said he did not come to this region to negotiate the use of military bases for U.S. forces, but he left open the possibility that the United States eventually would expand its presence.
The sea lanes in this region, where the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden meet, are increasingly important since they are used for commercial shipping and to move U.S. war materiel to the Persian Gulf, where U.S. forces are building up for a possible attack on Iraq.
On Wednesday, Rumsfeld was flying to the desert hinterland of Djibouti, which borders Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia near the Gulf of Aden, to visit hundreds of American troops stationed at Camp Le Monier, a French air base that has become the headquarters of a U.S. anti-terrorist task force.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told reporters after a palace meeting with Rumsfeld that members of Usama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network were filtering into the area, increasing the threat of terrorist acts in the region.
"Due to the migration of some of these people out of Afghanistan, things might have become a bit more serious in the Horn of Africa than it was earlier," Zenawi said in a joint appearance with Rumsfeld.
Zenawi, who discussed the war on terrorism with President Bush during a White House meeting last Thursday, emphasized his government's eagerness to work with the United States.
"I want to underline the fact that in the global fight against terrorism, Ethiopia is not going to be haphazard," he said. "Whatever it takes to fight terrorism, we will do."
Throughout the opening day of his visit to the Horn of African and the Persian Gulf, which began in Washington, Rumsfeld stressed that he was not negotiating access for American troops, ships or planes.
"My visit here is not transactional," he said in Addis Ababa. "It was a relationship visit. It was not to ask for anything or to receive anything. It was to encourage that this important partnership we have in the global war on terrorism evolve and strengthen."
In the Eritrean capital of Asmara earlier in the day Rumsfeld said, "I'm not here to put pressure on anybody. I'm here to demonstrate that the United States values what these countries are doing."
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki blamed Sudan for much of the terrorist problem in this region. He noted that bin Laden had taken refuge in Sudan until 1996 when he fled to Afghanistan.
Afwerki said he was impressed by the U.S. commitment to fight terrorism over the long term, and he said his government had offered assistance in many forms. Asked if that included permitting the basing of U.S. forces on Eritrean soil, he replied, "That is the least of it."
The port at Assab, on Eritrea's southern tip, is one of the largest on the Red Sea. When Gen. Tommy Franks, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Horn of Africa, the Persian Gulf and Central Asia, visited Assab in March, the government offered to host American forces on its soil.
During the Cold War, the United States operated a listening post from Asmara. It was known as Kagnew Station and run by the Army Security Agency, a forerunner of the National Security Agency.
The U.S. relationship with Eritrea, an impoverished country of 3 million people, is uneasy. Once admired in the West, Afwerki's government has come under criticism for human rights abuses.
Last year, two Eritrean workers at the U.S. Embassy in Asmara were arrested and are still being held without charge, and Afwerki closed all independent news organizations in the country. Rumsfeld said he and Afwerki discussed these issues, but he gave no indication of progress in resolving them.