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Djibouti/France - military exercises special report

Training for Afghanistan in the Horn of Africa

by Chris Thompson

Article published on the 2009-12-11 Latest update 2009-12-11 13:23 TU

A Mirage jet(Photo: AFP)

A Mirage jet
(Photo: AFP)

French soldiers in Djibouti train for Afghanistan and keep an eye on Africa.

Twelve special forces commandos arrived first. They landed at Arta, a barren patch of Djibouti's jagged coastline some 80km from the capital city. After scrambling from their boats they climbed the hills quickly towards the area's only radio mast.

A brick was attached to its base and a loud explosion rocked the spectators nearby; that was the signal for the army to storm the beach.

This was a rare demonstration of France's armed forces in action in the Horn of Africa.

The exercise, seen as crucial for battle preparedness in a region infamous for its fractious politics, included all the country's military sectors - sea, land and air.

As desert tanks zoomed onto the shore Mirage jets criss-crossed the open sky. Meanwhile, land troops were dispatched from the mouths of armoured personnel carriers and helicopters airlifted artillery guns onto the ground.

"It's a show of force. It shows what France is able to do militarily," said one army officer.

The troops taking part are a contingent of a 2,500-strong force based  in Djibouti. Originally built in the colonial era to balance Britain's regional base in Aden, it now sits across from America's Camp Lermonier.

In recent years French troops in Djibouti have been involved in a number of humanitarian and military missions in Africa. They helped reinforce the UN brigade patrolling Côte d'Ivoire and last year provided logistical and tactical help to Djiboutian soldiers warding off an attack from neighbouring Eritrea.

For the time being, the first theatre of combat these troops will see is Afghanistan, where France is part of the Nato contingent. The mountainous, arid countryside closely resembles Djibouti's own undulating moonscape.

"In addition to keeping our own forces we have to help the African peacekeepers tackle the problems themselves," said Commandant Etienne du Fayet, spokesperson for the French army in Djibouti. "For example, French officers are going to be training a contingent in Uganda next February and we are also going to Ethiopia."

That's part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy's new military policy in Africa which focuses on trying to build up indigenous military organizations and thus avoid direct intervention.

Nevertheless, on the day of the exercise a crisis was unfolding on Djibouti's southern border less than 200km away; the spectre of Somalia's Islamist inspired anarchy.