US drones based in Ethiopia expand anti-Al Qaida war

Millions of dollars spent on Arba Minch airfield

  • The Washington Post
  • Published: 00:00 October 29, 2011
  • Gulf News

Washington: The US Air Force has been secretly flying armed Reaper drones on counterterrorism missions from a remote civilian airport in southern Ethiopia as part of a rapidly expanding US-led proxy war against an Al Qaida affiliate in East Africa, US military officials said.

The Air Force has invested millions of dollars to upgrade an airfield in Arba Minch, Ethiopia, where it has built a small annexe to house a fleet of drones that can be equipped with Hellfire missiles and satellite-guided bombs.

The Reapers began flying missions earlier this year over neighbouring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting Al Shabab, a militant group connected to Al Qaida.

Black Hawk Down debacle

Mindful of the 1993 Black Hawk Down debacle in which two US military helicopters were shot down in the Somali capital of Mogadishu and 18 Americans killed, the Obama administration has sought to avoid deploying troops to the country.

As a result, the United States has relied on lethal drone attacks, a burgeoning CIA presence in Mogadishu and small-scale missions carried out by US special forces.

In addition, the United States has increased its funding for and training of African peacekeeping forces in Somalia that fight Al Shabab. The Washington Post reported last month that the Obama administration is building a constellation of secret drone bases in the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, including one site in Ethiopia.

The location of the Ethiopian base and the fact that it became operational this year, however, have not been previously disclosed. Some bases in the region also have been used to carry out operations against the Al Qaida affiliate in Yemen.

The Air Force confirmed on Thursday that drone operations are under way at the Arba Minch airport.

Denial

Master Sgt James Fisher, a spokesman for the 17th Air Force, which oversees operations in Africa, said that an unspecified number of Air Force personnel are working at the Ethiopian airfield “to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programmes”.

The Arba Minch airport expansion is still in progress but the Air Force deployed the Reapers there earlier this year, Fisher said.

He said the drone flights “will continue as long as the government of Ethiopia welcomes our cooperation on these varied security programmes”.

Last month, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of US drones in the country. On Thursday, a spokesman for the Ethiopian embassy in Washington repeated that assertion. “That’s the government’s position,” said Tesfaye Yilma, the head of public diplomacy for the embassy.

Source:  The Washington Post.

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