AF spends $50M to upgrade Ethiopian airport

By benim
In East Africa
Feb 10th, 2011

The Air Force is reportedly spending up to $50 million to upgrade an airport in southern Ethiopia, a crucial ally in an unstable region.

The Addis Fortune newspaper reports the U.S. is extending the runway and upgrading facilities at Arba Minch, a town of less than 75,000 that sits about 600 miles away from the Somali border. It is also less than 200 miles away from the border of Southern Sudan, which will become an independent nation in July.

Spokeswomen at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa did not return e-mails seeking confirmation of the report and more details.

The Fortune, an English-language independent weekly, said the airport renovations will include lengthening the runway and building modern facilities. The improved runway will be able to support C-17 Globemaster IIIs, the newspaper reported, citing diplomatic sources.

The Fortune reported “mobilization of construction materials and clearing the area of wild bushes” was already underway, and heavy equipment was clearing earth from the site.

“A mountain of wood, piled up after clearing from the construction site, has been visible on the opposite side of the airport’s gates, according to eye witnesses in the town Fortune spoke to,” the newspaper reported. “The project site is under heavy military guard, with U.S. troops seen patrolling the area, according to these eye witnesses.”

Ethiopia receives millions of dollars in military aid from the U.S. each year, and American troops help train Ethiopia’s 200,000-strong military. Many Africa observers believe Ethiopia’s 2006 invasion of Somalia to topple its nascent Islamist government was launched at the insistence of the Pentagon.

Military and diplomatic officials have long warned about the danger of Somalia, whose fledgling government battles warlords and Islamist militias for control over land. Al-Shabaab, a group that has pledged loyalty to al-Qaida and counts American citizens in its ranks, bombed a café in neighboring Uganda and killed 74 in July. American officials are concerned the group could carry out future attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

American special operations forces have reportedly carried out numerous attacks inside Somalia, including the killing of a senior al-Qaida leader in southern Somalia. The Pentagon never confirmed the attack or others like it took place.

The emergence of an independent oil-rich Southern Sudan also likely makes Arba Minch’s location attractive to U.S. officials. Southerners overwhelmingly voted for independence earlier this year, and President Obama announced his intent to recognize the country in July.

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