Algiers - The United States and Algeria pledged Thursday to work together to battle terrorism, as US Secretary of State John Kerry paid his first visit to the north African nation.
“Algeria, which has paid a heavy toll to terrorism, will never bow in front of this scourge,” Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said at the opening of strategic talks between the two countries.
“Terrorism knows no boundaries, has no creed, no religion and targets all nations,” he added.
But he called for more intelligence sharing from the United States in the fight against Islamist militancy, and greater coordination among regional law enforcement agencies as well as for border monitoring.
Jihadist violence has plagued the vast Sahel-Sahara region since the 2011 overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, prompting a French-led military intervention in Algeria's southern neighbour Mali in January 2013 after Al-Qaeda-linked groups seized control of the country's north.
But militants have also struck in Niger, Tunisia and Algeria itself, where they overran a desert gas plant last year triggering a bloody four-day siege in which some 40 hostages were killed.
Lamamra said his country was committed to working with all its partners “to stand in the way of this peril, and to eradicate this scourge”.
One of Algeria's major concerns was the situation in the Sahel, where “terrorism, human-trafficking, drug-trafficking and all kinds of criminal activities have woven their webs,” he said.
This threatened “the stability and very existence of the peoples and states of the area.”
Kerry arrived late Wednesday amid tight security on his first visit to Algeria since becoming secretary of state in February 2013.
“This is a time when peace and self-determination are facing more complex threats than ever before,” Kerry acknowledged.
He said one of the ways to fight terrorism was to help create jobs and ensure stability in people's lives.
“Those who offer the violence that comes with terrorism, don't offer jobs, they don't offer education, they don't offer health care, they don't have a programme to pull a country together.”
Such terror groups are in direct “confrontation with modernity,” he warned.
The United States, Kerry said, wanted to partner with Algeria to build a more robust defence relationship and help secure and strengthen borders in the region.
He also vowed that the United States would work with Algeria to try to stem the unrest in the lawless Sahel region, which stretches across several north African nations.
“We are grateful, very grateful, for Algeria's efforts in Mali and Niger, which underscore Algeria's constructive role in regional stability not only in the east, but to the south.”
Algeria's independent press has questioned the timing of Kerry's visit, which comes as campaigning is in full swing for an April 17 presidential election in which ailing incumbent Abdelaziz Bouteflika is controversially seeking a fourth term.
The El Watan newspaper voiced concern that Bouteflika's campaign team would portray the visit as a US “endorsement” of the 77-year-old's re-election bid.
Human Rights watch has accused the authorities of seeking to “stifle” freedom of association ahead of the poll.
Kerry was to meet Bouteflika for talks later Thursday, with only a small handful of staff.
But in a nod to the criticism, Kerry said Washington was looking forward to free, transparent elections.
“The United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose in order to bring about the future that Algeria and its neighbours deserve.”
The top US diplomat said such a future was one where “citizens can enjoy the free exercise of their civil, political, and human rights, and where global companies, businesses, are confident in being able to invest for the long haul.”
After taking part in a tree-planting ceremony he met children of local US embassy staff outside the largest Nike store in Africa to celebrate Algeria's qualification for the 2014 football World Cup.
The US sporting goods giant is among a small, but growing number of non-energy based American companies seeking to do business in the oil-rich country.