WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is sending more than $25 million in military equipment, small boats and other support to Tunisia and Malta, two nations that flank Libya and are key U.S. allies in the tumultuous region, The Associated Press has learned.
The funding, detailed in documents obtained by the AP, is part of a $44 million Pentagon aid package and will serve to bolster Tunisia's fledgling democracy.
Early this year Tunisia became the birthplace of the "Arab awakening" when a popular uprising there launched a wave of anti-government protests and calls for greater freedoms and democracy across the Middle East. A number of countries have been watching Tunisia to see how it handles the transition.
Nearly $21 million will be used to provide boats, several dozen trucks, helicopter upgrades, radar and training to Tunisia. The aid comes as rebel fighters in Libya are working to open major supply routes from Tunisia to Tripoli and to secure control of border crossings in that region.
As part of the package, Malta, the tiny Mediterranean island north of Libya, will receive about $4.7 million in aid in the form of boats, night-vision equipment, computers and maritime training.
The aid package included nearly $10 million for Azerbaijan, a critical U.S. ally bordering Iran on the Caspian Sea. Aimed at improving the counterterrorism capabilities of the naval special forces, the aid includes small boats, engines, diving gear and training.
Oil-rich Azerbaijan in one of a number of countries that host supply routes for equipment moving in and out of Afghanistan, including thousands of military and commercial flights that cross its airspace and hundreds that fly in and out of Baku's airport.
Lithuania and Hungary were also included in the funding plan. Lithuania will receive $5.7 million for surveillance and communications equipment and training, and Hungary will get about $2.9 million in weapons, ammunition, radios and other surveillance equipment.
The funding was recently approved by Pentagon officials and sent to Capitol Hill as part of a notification process before the equipment can be delivered.
Up to $350 million in military aid can be distributed this year to support counterterror operations in other countries. The Pentagon routinely releases the military aid in three or four installments each year.
The first package approved earlier this year was for about $43 million and was directed at NATO and other allies in the Afghanistan war. A second package for $145.4 million was directed largely at North African nations struggling to battle al-Qaida-linked terrorists.
Initially, military leaders have planned to spend at least $150 million of the fund on aid to Yemen. So far, none of the assistance has gone there, as the embattled government struggles with internal uprisings and an increasingly threatening al-Qaida affiliate.