FILE PHOTO: U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper gives remarks during the 19th annual September 11 observance ceremony at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., September 11, 2020. REUTERS

(Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper made a rare visit to Algeria on Thursday for talks with the president about war-torn Libya and the troubled Sahel region to the south of the Sahara.

Algeria: US Defence Secretary visits Algiers in bid to “improve US military cooperation”

Both countries are alarmed by the threat posed by Islamist militant groups in North Africa and the Sahel, and Algeria is weighing a more active military role against them outside its own borders.

Esper and President Abdelmadjid Tebboune held “talks on Libya and the Sahel and both parties agreed to maintain cooperation and coordination,” a statement from Algeria’s presidency said.

In a statement, the Pentagon said Esper voiced support for expanding military relations with Algeria during the meeting.

“The two leaders discussed security throughout North Africa and the Sahel and ways to advance our strategic military and diplomatic partnership,” the Pentagon said.

Esper’s visit is the first by a U.S. Defense Secretary to Algeria since Donald Rumsfeld’s in 2006 and he is also the most senior American official yet to meet Tebboune.

Tebboune took office in December after mass protests last year led the army to push his predecessor Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down after 20 years in power.

The new president has proposed changes to the constitution aimed at mollifying the opposition protest movement, but the reforms would also give the army new powers to intervene in neighbouring states.

“Mark Esper wants to discuss the Algerian army’s possible role in the region once the new constitution is passed as it allows peace-keeping operations overseas,” a Western diplomat in Algeria familiar with the matter told Reuters.

An Algerian source said the talks were expected to focus on Libya, where nine years of chaos after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi have created space for militants, and Mali, where French troops are trying to help quell an Islamist insurgency.

“Algeria has an influence in Mali. It showed it can help. The Americans understood that French military intervention did not curb terrorism,” a senior Algerian security source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

“As for Libya, it is well known that Algeria maintains good ties with all the players including tribes and personalities,” the senior source told Reuters.

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