By Kieran Murray

Djibouti - Islam can't stop it, not even Aids can stop it.

In the centre of this quiet port city at the mouth of the Red Sea, a small neighbourhood is crammed with red light bars and clubs that have withstood one government crackdown after another and bounced back as sleazy as ever.

French troops and Foreign Legionnaires carouse here with an irregular army of prostitutes from across the Horn of Africa, offending many in this conservative Muslim nation but also injecting plenty of cash into its weak economy.

About 2 500 legionnaires and regular French troops are posted in Djibouti, which only won its independence from Paris in 1977 and has since relied on the former colonial power's army to protect it from danger in the troubled Horn of Africa.

Although merchant seamen and resident expatriates also come to let off steam in the red light district, it is the legionnaires and soldiers who drink hardest and longest.

The bars play a mix of dance music, French house and reggae but the troops seem to move the same to every song, jumping up and down and bouncing into each other on the small dance floors.

All around, prostitutes from Djibouti and neighbouring Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia line the walls and the bar, looking a little bemused at the rituals of male bonding.

"There are so many girls here, why do they dance with each other?" said Sara, a 20-year-old from northern Ethiopia who came here two years ago. "But it is still early. Later they will come to be with us."

And they do. Long after midnight at another loud and cramped club, three legionnaires sit sprawled on sofas, their heavily tattooed arms wrapped around Ethiopian prostitutes as they continue to knock back beer and whisky at a ferocious pace.

All around them, soldiers are dancing with other girls or already making plans for the rest of the night.

The government has tried cleaning up the red light district on several occasions, but the bars routinely side-step any new regulations or simply flout them.

When authorities said alcohol could only be sold in private clubs, restaurants or hotels, owners quickly changed the signs above their bars and added neon signs saying "Restaurant".

Last October, the government shut down about 40 "unauthorised bars", saying they were a focus of prostitution, drugs, drunkenness, fighting and paedophilia.

"These activities are shameless activities that I cannot name," Interior Minister Abdallah Abdillahi Miguil said as he announced the clampdown.

The bars were quickly closed, Ethiopian prostitutes were put on trains and sent back home and Djibouti's centre was again quiet after dark - the only place serving beer in the city became the Sheraton, its biggest hotel.

It lasted a few months that way, but then the prostitutes began returning and the bars and clubs reopened.

Club owners contend that Djibouti and its government need the red light district, whether they like it or not.

"Look at this country's economy. It is only the French that keep it going," said the Ethiopian owner of one club, looking over a bar heaving with young, fit legionnaires and older, beer-bellied expats. "This area provides jobs, money and (tax) revenues for the government."

Neither does an explosion of the Aids virus deter revellers.

Djibouti has one of the highest HIV/Aids infection rates in the world among young adults. The United Nations estimates that 13,9 percent of Djibouti's women and 8,8 percent of its men between the ages of 15 and 24 are infected.

Rates among its prostitutes are thought to be much higher.

As his friends drank and danced at one bar last week, a French military officer said he thought Aids was now a greater threat than combat in a spell abroad with the Legion.

"After a night of beer, they forget everything they know about Aids. It is the greatest risk they take."

One 23-year-old legionnaire from eastern Europe said he knew the risks but shrugged his shoulders as way of explaining why he and his friends had sex with the local prostitutes.

"We are here a long time. It is not easy," he said, a little sheepishly.

In 1990, a pro-Iraqi group claimed responsibility for a bomb attack on one bar in the red light district that killed a French boy and injured 17 other people.

But even that had only a temporary impact - 10 years later, the bar is still in business. - Reuters