Rice Touts Close Ties Between U.S. and Morocco

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrapped up her visit to North Africa with talks Sunday on expanding the close business and security ties between the United States and Morocco.

Rice and Moroccan Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi-Fihri hailed the "excellent" relations between their two countries, according to the state-run news agency, MAP.

Talks addressed the Western Sahara, which Morocco annexed in 1975, as well as Moroccan efforts to "achieve reforms in the political process and in terms of human rights," the agency said.

The U.S. and France have backed a U.N. plan for an autonomy of the mineral-rich region. The pro-independence Polisario Front, supported by Algeria, wants a referendum to rule the Western Sahara's right to self-determination.

A tourism haven and a relatively liberal Muslim kingdom, Morocco is the North African nation with the closest business and diplomatic ties to the U.S. Morocco recently bought a large shipment of F-16 fighter jets from the U.S.

The country is accused by several former U.S. detainees of having tortured suspected terrorists on behalf of the CIA.

Rice's visit to North Africa is her first as secretary of state in this region of increasing strategic importance. The trip, with earlier stops in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, comes as the threat posed by militants in North Africa has become "even more salient in the recent months," she said Saturday.

Her meeting with Libyan leader Moammar Ghadafi on Friday marked the end of three decades of confrontation and followed an agreement in August that settled all terrorism-related lawsuits between the countries.

In Tunisia and Algeria, Rice praised their help in fighting terrorism and called for even tighter cooperation. She also sought to boost business ties in Algeria, a large oil- and gas-producing country.

America's top diplomat also said the U.S. was trying to empty the military prison at Guantanamo Bay "as soon as we possibly can," while keeping in mind that "we have an obligation not to have dangerous people on the streets."

Many North Africans are among the detainees held there, and Rice said she raised the issue of their transfer during all her meetings with the region's heads of state.

Human rights groups worry that detainees transferred from Guantanamo back to North Africa could face mistreatment. Rice 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."

The issue is especially sensitive in Algeria, which is battling a resurgent Islamist militancy. Most of the violence is claimed by al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, al-Qaida's regional offshoot. Moroccan authorities also say they dismantled at least half-a-dozen terrorist cells this year and are holding some 1,000 suspected Islamists behind bars. Many of them trained in Algeria, and several were plotting terror attacks in Europe or against tourists in Morocco, Moroccan authorities say.