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(photo credit: AP)
Opening a three-day tour of North Africa, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Saturday the US wants to build closer military ties to Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco to help combat Islamic extremism and terrorism.
Speaking aboard an air force plane en route to Tunis, Rumsfeld called Tunisia and Morocco "long-standing friends and constructive partners in these efforts against terrorism." He flew here from Sicily, where he attended a meeting of NATO defense ministers Thursday and Friday.
Rumsfeld said he would make stops in Algeria and Morocco after meeting with senior government officials in Tunis.
"Each country has been, in its way, providing moderate leadership and been constructive in... the struggle against violent extremism," he said. "It's something we value and want to strengthen."
Rumsfeld said that while some parts of North Africa are vulnerable to infiltration by terrorist networks, he does not think the danger is as great in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
"There are certainly places in the world that are attractive for terrorists and terrorist networks," he said. "They tend not to be countries like these three. They tend to be areas that have large ungoverned spaces" where governments are more tolerant toward extremism, "and that would not be the case in any one of these three nations."
Rumsfeld was scheduled to meet with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and other senior government officials.
The Pentagon under Rumsfeld has taken an interest in encouraging greater cooperation among Tunisia and other countries of the Maghreb.
Algeria, for example, has expressed interest in closer relations, and Pentagon officials have said they are interested in encouraging the Algerians to work more closely on security issues with neighbors such as Tunisia and Morocco.
President George W. Bush's administration is concerned about the prospect of al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations taking advantage of the loosely governed areas of northern Africa to widen their influence.
The administration considers Tunisia an ally in the war on terror and a moderate Arab state, although Tunisia has long been accused of human rights abuses. Ben Ali, who took power in a bloodless palace coup in 1987, has repeatedly won landslide electoral victories tainted by charges of fraud.
Tunis is an unusual, but not unprecedented, destination for an American defense secretary. US military ties to the country date to World War II. The North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial is about 16 km. outside Tunis.