- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

TIMBUKTU, Mali — Green Berets ran mock ambushes last week in the sand dunes of central Mali, where Malian troops fired blanks at a pretend enemy — and shouted “bang, bang,” when the blanks ran out.

The exercise was part of a months-long American effort to train troops in Mali and three other impoverished West African nations where Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda are suspected to have operated.

The foes “could be anyone: bandits, smugglers, terrorists,” said one U.S. special operations soldier, part of a U.S. force that began arriving in Mali in November.

The 200 American soldiers visited Mali under the State Department’s Pan-Sahel Initiative, a $7 million program to help soldiers in Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania boost their battle skills amid the worldwide fight against terrorism.

The Sahel is a dry, dusty region crisscrossed by ancient Arab trade routes just south of the Sahara Desert. The U.S. military thinks the open deserts and weak, impoverished governments invite refuge for terrorists, and U.S. forces have stepped up activity in the region as a result.

U.S. officials also say many African armies are too small and ill-equipped to patrol the vast territories they nominally control.

A Green Beret, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the program aimed to boost the ability of the Malian military to secure the country’s borders against lawlessness and insurgents.

Malian Lt. Col. Younoussa Maiga agreed. “The Americans are helping us reinforce what we already have,” he said.

As camels loped by, scores of Malian troops dove into the scorching sand from U.S.-donated vehicles, firing blanks at pretend enemies. A small group of Green Berets looked on and gave advice.

“We’ve trained them to such a degree that we only have to make small corrections,” said one Green Beret. “But even these small things can make a difference when it’s live.”

Top U.S. military officials say the threat from terrorists in Africa is growing.

Last year, more than a dozen European tourists kidnapped in Algeria were released in Mali by the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, an Algerian insurgency the United States says has pledged fealty to Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

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