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SLUG: 2-315675 Pentagon/Sao Tome (L)










INTRO: The United States is moving quickly to cement its security relations with Sao Tome, where an oil production boom is expected to make the tiny West African island nation strategically important. Pentagon Correspondent Alex Belida reports.

TEXT: Defense officials have disclosed that a U-S military liaison officer was sent to Sao Tome earlier this year on a one-year assignment on behalf of the European Command, which is responsible for most of Africa.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, tell V-O-A the officer's role is to coordinate and develop security cooperation programs with Sao Tome.

The officials indicate those efforts will include not only military education and training for Sao Tomean forces, but also military equipment sales and transfers.

News reports from Sao Tome indicate the sales and transfers under consideration will focus on bolstering the island nation's Coast Guard. The goal is to give Sao Tome the naval means to patrol its exclusive offshore economic zone, as well as the joint development zone it shares in the Gulf of Guinea with Nigeria. Both zones are believed to be rich in oil, and production efforts are already getting under way.

The dispatch of a military liaison officer is noteworthy, as there is no U-S Embassy in Sao Tome. Diplomatic and other contacts are handled by American officials based in Gabon.

In another development, U-S and Sao Tomean officials have revealed explosives experts will travel to Sao Tome in June to begin destroying what are described as obsolete sea mines.

U-S and African security sources say there has also been discussion of holding joint naval maneuvers later this year. Sao Tome has a small number of patrol boats.

The moves follow comments by the senior U-S military commander for Africa, General Charles Wald, who said last year he views Sao Tome as a potentially ideal site for one of the U-S military's so-called Forward Operating Locations.

These are not permanent bases, but rather facilities that can be used in an emergency. General Wald said that, both, because of its proximity to the oil-rich Gulf of Guinea, and its strategic position along the Equator close to West and Central Africa, Sao Tome is an attractive location. He likened it to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, a strategically-placed base, used heavily by U-S forces during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

General Wald visited Sao Tome last year, the most senior U-S military officer ever to go to the island.

Since then, the U-S Trade and Development Agency has announced it will finance feasibility studies for the development of a deepwater port and expanded airfield facilities on Sao Tome. (SIGNED)


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