Bush open to Liberia hosting U.S. military command

By Jeremy Pelofsky, Feb. 16, 2008

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush said on Friday the possible shift of the U.S. military command for Africa to the continent from its current home in Germany will be on the agenda as he meets with leaders of five African countries.

Bush on Friday departed for a six-day trip to Africa to highlight one of the few bright spots in his foreign policy agenda, assistance to HIV/AIDS victims and helping budding businesses. He will visit Tanzania, Ghana, Benin, Liberia and Rwanda.

But the conflicts in Darfur and Kenya will also be on the agenda, as well as lobbying from African leaders on where to locate the new Africa Command headquarters, known as Africom, whose primary mission will be to work with African militaries.

"If there is going to be a physical presence on the continent of Africa in the forms of a headquarters ... obviously we would seriously consider Liberia," Bush said in an interview with foreign media on Thursday and released on Friday.

In the interview, Bush said there was a path forward in Kenya, which has been wracked with violence after a disputed election.

"There is a way forward, which is for the parties to come together in good faith, and work out a way forward until there are new elections," he said.

Bush has asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to go to Kenya with a message that there must be a full return to democracy and she will be in Nairobi on Monday.

The U.S. attention to Africa has been growing over the last few years amid concerns that countries there could become safe havens for militants seeking to base operations and plan attacks on the United States.

"Africom is a brand new concept aimed at strengthening nations' capacities to deal with trafficking or terror, but also to help nations develop forces capable of doing the peacekeeping that unfortunately too often is needed on the continent," Bush said.

The U.S. has some 1,700 troops in Djibouti. While Liberia has offered to host Africom, regional powers like South Africa and Nigeria have been wary.

The U.S. military divides the world into regional commands. Previously, responsibility for Africa was split between European Command, Pacific Command and Central Command, which is the headquarters for the Middle East.

A year ago Bush announced the creation of Africom and has been headquartered for the time being in Stuttgart, Germany.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday urged Bush to speak with African leaders about helping people over poverty as well as the lack of basic sanitation of educational opportunities.

"Your visit to African states at this time will be very important and historic," Ban told reporters after meeting with Bush at the White House. "In that regard, I wish you all the best. This is very great opportunities."

It is the second trip to Africa for Bush, and the fifth for his wife, Laura. (Additional reporting by David Alexander, Editing by Jackie Frank)

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