Pentagon chief heads to Algeria for North Africa security talks

TUNIS (AFP) – United States (US) Secretary of Defence Mark Esper headed to Algeria yesterday to bolster ties, as the North African nation tries to mediate in war-ravaged Libya and Mali while battling extremists at home.

Esper, the first Defense Secretary to visit Algiers in almost 15 years, hopes “to deepen cooperation with Algeria on key regional security issues, such as the threat posed by extremist groups,” a senior US military official said.

Esper, due in the country as part of a North Africa tour, will arrive in Algiers after talks in neighbouring Tunisia, before heading to Morocco.

“Algeria is a committed counter-terrorism partner,” head of US Africa Command General Stephen Townsend said on a recent visit to Algiers.

US military officials frequently visit Tunisia and Morocco, where defence cooperation with Washington is well established.

United States Defence Secretary Mark Esper gives a speech while visiting the North Africa American Cemetery. PHOTO: AFP

But Esper will be the first Defense Secretary to visit Algeria, an ally of Russia and China, since Donald Rumsfeld in 2006.

He was received by Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune – who is also Defence Minister and head of the armed forces – and with the Chief of Staff General Said Chanegriha.

“Strengthening this relationship is very important to us,” Townsend said.

“Degrading violent extremist organisations… and enhancing regional stability is a mutual must.”

Algeria is trying to re-activate its role on the regional diplomatic scene, including as a mediator in the conflicts in Mali and Libya.

Extremist groups in Libya and the wider Sahel region have become an increasing concern since a NATO-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime dictator Muammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Conflict in Libya since then has sucked in multiple nations backing opposing forces, including Turkey and Egypt.

Mali, supported by France and United Nations (UN) peacekeepers, is struggling with an eight-year-old extremist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives.