US defence chief visits Morocco to boost security ties

Rabat (AFP) –


US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Morocco on Friday, the final stop on a North Africa tour aimed at beefing up cooperation against jihadists in war-torn Libya and the Sahel.

The Pentagon chief was to sign a military cooperation deal with the kingdom, which along with Tunisia is seen by Washington as a major ally in the region destabilised by years of conflict in Libya and Mali.

In Morocco, Esper was due to meet army chief Abdelfattah Louarak, Defence Minister Abdellatif Loudiyi and Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

The goal is to reinforce cooperation between the United States and Morocco, which already hosts an annual US military exercise called African Lion, cancelled this year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The US is Morocco's top arms supplier, selling it combat aircraft, ships, tanks and armoured vehicles.

Esper also signed a 10-year military cooperation deal with Tunis on Wednesday, hailing their collaboration over the conflict in Libya.

On Thursday, Esper visited Algeria, an ally of Russia and China, becoming the first US defence chief to do so since Donald Rumsfeld almost 15 years ago.

Algeria is trying to mediate in war-ravaged Libya and Mali.

The last senior US official to visit Morocco was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met Bourita in December to discuss efforts to isolate Iran, as well as the conflicts rocking North Africa.

Morocco has in recent weeks hosted talks between rival sides in Libya in support of United Nations efforts to find a political solution to the fighting raging since the 2011 fall of longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.

Its foreign minister also visited Mali last month, meeting transitional president Bah Ndaw and his deputy Colonel Assimi Goita, leader of a military coup the overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in August.