October 28, 2011 in News
U.S. drone base in Ethiopia is operational (Washington Post):
The 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 U.S.-led proxy war against an al-Qaeda affiliate in East Africa, U.S. 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 annex 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 neighboring Somalia, where the United States and its allies in the region have been targeting al-Shabab, a militant Islamist group connected to al-Qaeda.
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-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen.
The Air Force confirmed Thursday that drone operations are underway at the Arba Minch airport. 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 programs.”
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 programs.”
Last month, the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry denied the presence of U.S. 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. “We don’t entertain foreign military bases in Ethiopia.”
But U.S. military personnel and contractors have become increasingly visible in recent months in Arba Minch, a city of about 70,000 people in southern Ethiopia. Arba Minch means “40 springs” in Amharic, the national language.
Travelers who have passed through the Arba Minch airport on the occasional civilian flights that land there said the U.S. military has erected a small compound on the tarmac, next to the terminal.
US Air Force Upgrades Arba Minch to International Airport – February 2011 (Addis Fortune – Ethiopia):
The US Air Force is upgrading Arba Minch Airport, which serves as a domestic airport in Southern Regional State, after signing an agreement with the Ethiopian government, in November 2010, reliable diplomatic sources disclosed to Fortune.
Located five kilometres from the town’s centre, the airport first become operational in November 1998. It has a runway dimension of 2,800 metres by 45 metres, but lacks crucial facilities such as fire fighting equipment, aeronautical MET, and air traffic services are not available. However, it can land aircraft the size of a Boeing 737.
The US Air Force is extending the runway and upgrading the airport to international standards with modern facilities, according to these diplomatic sources. When completed, the upgraded airport, one of 12 airports in Ethiopia of which four are international, will have the capacity to land a Boeing C-17 Globemaster, a large military transport aircraft that has been developed for the US Air Force since the beginning of the 1980s.
No official statement was made from either side about why the US Air Force is spending tens of millions of dollars to upgrade the airport in Arba Minch, located 505km south of Addis Abeba.
However, the area holds regional military strategic importance for the US due to the high threat of terrorism in neighbouring Somalia and a concern for possible regional instability following the expected independence of Southern Sudan, the diplomatic sources told Fortune.
The mobilisation of construction materials and clearing the area of wild bushes by Orchids Construction, a subcontracted local construction firm, was underway last week. Heavy-duty graders and four excavators were unearthing the area near the airport, while 20 Nissan Diesel (UD) trucks could be seen carrying mounds earth out of the project compound.
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