Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, left, and US President Barack Obama shake hands May 5 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
WASHINGTON — The United States secured long term access Monday to a military base in Djibouti that it relies on to launch counter-terrorism missions, including drone strikes, in Yemen and the Horn of Africa.
US President Barack Obama and his Djibouti counterpart Ismail Omar Guelleh announced the renewed “long term lease” on Camp Lemonnier to reporters as they met at the White House.
“Camp Lemonnier is extraordinarily important to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but also throughout the region. We very much appreciate the hospitality that Djiboutians provide,” Obama said.
“Overall, this is a critical facility that we maintain in Djibouti, we could not do it without the president’s cooperation, we’re grateful for him agreeing for a long term presence there,” he added.
Guelleh said his East African country and the United States were linked in a “strategic partnership” to deal with “the fight against terrorism, piracy and human trafficking in our region.”
The US military uses Lemonnier, a base for around 4,000 US and allied personnel, as a crucial staging area for assaults on suspected al-Qaida militants in Yemen and Shebab forces in Somalia.
After al-Qaida’s attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the US presence has steadily increased at the base, serving as a hub for special operation forces and a growing fleet of armed and unarmed drones as well as other aircraft.
US officials, anxious to maintain a low-profile for the American military in Africa, tends to divulge few details about operations at the base, which is focused on the counter-terrorism mission.
The base is the biggest in a network of airfields in East Africa that the United States uses for drones and other surveillance planes, including outposts in Uganda and Ethiopia.
Washington recently agreed to move its drone base in Djibouti from Lemonnier, which is near the country’s international airport, to a more remote location, following concerns over possible collisions between the unmanned planes and commercial aircraft.
The Pentagon confirmed the deal with Djibouti but did not offer more information about the terms of the new lease.
“We’ve agreed to extend our presence at Camp Lemonnier and to increase our cooperation across a range of areas, including security, counter-terrorism, trade and energy cooperation,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steven Warren told AFP.
The base, originally created by the French Foreign Legion, was initially seen as a temporary outpost after the 9/11 attacks but the US military has drafted long-term plans to keep operating out of Lemonnier.
The Pentagon reportedly has informed Congress of plans for a dramatic expansion of its facilities in Djibouti, proposing more than a billion dollars in construction projects.