10 December 2012

Algeria, U.S. Meet On Mali Crisis

Algiers — Security and trade topped the agenda at recent talks between Algerian and American diplomats.

US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns paid a visit to Algeria last Thursday (December 6th) to discuss the situation in Mali and ways to boost bilateral co-operation.

Algeria and the US have a "shared concern" on "the danger of violent extremist groups using northern Mali as a safe haven", according to Burns.

"We strongly support Algeria's leadership in fostering political dialogue, including between the Touareg and the interim government in Mali," the US diplomat told reporters during a press conference at the US Embassy in Algiers.

As for the question of how to resolve the security problems faced by the region, Burns said that his country supported increased counter-terrorism co-operation with Mali and its neighbours, as well as a potential African-led multinational force. He also urged an increase in border patrols to curb the flow of arms and fighters into Mali.

Burns met with several Algerian officials during the trip, including President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Maghreb Affairs Minister Abdelkader Messahel.

In addition to the situation in Mali, increased trade and counter-terror co-operation were also on the agenda.

"It is certain that a new era is dawning for bilateral relations," according to Amin Saber, a political analyst. Saber pointed to a number of official visits, including a trip by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October.

"It would be wrong to believe that all the Americans are interested in is security," he added. Although this matter is of fundamental importance, the analyst told Magharebia that there were "other matters that the two countries have been working on constantly over the past few months, including investment".

Saber noted the construction, housing, pharmaceutical, oil and gas contracts signed with Algeria.

Burns' visit coincided with a visit by Michael Sheehan, the US Assistant Secretary of Defence for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict. According to a statement released by the Algerian defence ministry, the talks "focused on matters of mutual interest, such as the current regional situation".

However, Algeria continues to pursue a non-interventionist foreign policy, as Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci underlined in an interview published November 22nd in Jeune Afrique.

"Since our nation achieved independence, the overarching values of our diplomacy have been non-intervention and the sovereignty of states," Medelci stated. Algeria was not convinced, he added, that an exclusively military solution would bring about peace and unity to Mali.

He downplayed the differences between the Algerian and French approaches to the issue by saying that there was no doubt about their shared desire to combat terrorism and cross-border crime.

With regard to Ansar al-Din, however, the top Algerian diplomat acknowledged differences in terms of how the groups in the conflict were viewed, saying that all components of a society have the right to demand social change by non-violent means.

Meanwhile, African and Maghreb Affairs Minister Abdelkader Messahel said that Algeria would continue to work with all partners in the fight against terrorism.

Messahel told Le soir d'Algérie November 22nd that armed intervention should only be pursued if all avenues of dialogue had been explored without success.

"You can know when a war will start, but you can never know when and above all how it will end," he argued. He also stated that Algeria, Niger and Mauritania were all working to make their borders more secure, but that this did not mean that they would be "automatically closed".

On the humanitarian front, Messahel said that Algeria had sent 5,800 tonnes of food at its own expense since the crisis began to help refugees in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso and people displaced to southern Mali. It also made a direct contribution of $10 million to help the Malian government make as smooth a transition as possible.

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