ALGIERS, Algeria, AP – Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld met Sunday with senior government leaders on what Pentagon officials said they believe to be the first visit to Algeria by a U.S. defense secretary.
Rumsfeld arrived here from Tunisia where he toured the North Africa American Cemetery and laid a wreath in honor of the 2,841 U.S. servicemen buried near the ancient city of Carthage on the Mediterranean Coast.
Algeria was the second stop on a three-day North Africa tour that will end Monday in Morocco. Rumsfeld is trying o encourage more cooperation to fight Islamic extremism and terrorism.
After decades of chilly relations, the Algerians are seeking closer ties to Washington. U.S. officials are encouraged by the prospect of closer cooperation with the Algerian military, which is the largest in North Africa.
Algeria battled its own terrorism problem in the 1990s with an insurgency against the government that saw intense fighting between 1992 and 1998 with more than 100,000 deaths, many of them attributed to massacres of civilians by Islamic extremists.
The al-Para faction of an Algerian terrorist organization called the Salafist Group For Call and Combat took 32 European hostages in 2003 and is still considered a threat.
Algerian commandos freed 14 of the captives, while Germany reportedly paid a ransom for the remaining 17 who had been taken to neighboring Mali. One hostage died of heat stroke.
The Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC, the most structured group among Algerian Islamic insurgents battling the state since 1992, has in recent years turned its sights on jihad, or holy war, beyond Algerian borders.
Nabil Sahraoui, a GSPC leader who took over in 2003 before reportedly being killed by Algerian soldiers, declared the group’s allegiance to al-Qaida.
In Tunisia, Rumsfeld and leaders of that Muslim nation pledged on Saturday to build closer military ties to help combat Islamic extremism.
“They have been attacked by terrorists in this country, they have felt the sting of that type of violence,” Rumsfeld told reporters after meeting with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at the presidential palace.
A written statement issued by a presidential spokesman said Ben Ali assured Rumsfeld that Tunisia was committed to fighting “all forms of terrorism and extremism,” which Bel Ali called a “scourge.”