Algeria agreed in January to allow the United States to fly spy planes over its territory to hunt for Al-Qaeda bases in the Sahara, according to a leaked diplomatic cable published.
The French daily Le Monde uncovered the secret note in the trove of secret US State Department correspondence released by the WikiLeaks website.
“No partner is more important than Algeria in the fight against Al-Qaeda,” the US embassy in Algiers said, according to Le Monde’s French translation of the memo. “Algeria wants to be strategic partner, not a rival.”
The memo said that the planes would usually operate from the US naval airbase in Rota, in southern Spain. A previous memo, dated December 30 last year and published on WikiLeaks’ website, described the negotiations between US officials and senior Algerian foreign ministry official Sabri Boukadoum that led to the deal, AFP reports.
The planes, Lockheed Martin EP-3 spy planes operated by the US Navy, intercept radio and other electronic communications and will be tasked to overfly Algeria to patrol the skies over Mali and Mauritania, it said.
Al-Qaeda’s north African subsidiary — Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — has bases in the Mauritanian desert and regularly carries out kidnappings of Western civilians. It is holding five French and two African hostages.
The December memo said the United States has asked other governments in the region permission to make the flights and was awaiting their response.
On Monday, a senior US military leader in the region praised Algeria for leading the fight against Islamic militants in the Sahel region of northern Africa and said progress was being made.
“This is a regional issue where Algerian land forces have taken the leadership role and it is very impressive the progress that has been made,” said Major General David Hogg, the commander of US Army Africa.
Algeria has led a high-profile military and political push also involving Mauritania, Mali and Niger against militants. The four countries have a joint command centre in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset.