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NATO thaws Cold War image with African war games

Written by: Staff

SAO VICENTE, Cape Verde, June 29 (Reuters) The islanders of Cape Verde are slowly getting used to German armoured vehicles and Spanish helicopters descending on their sun-drenched beaches as U S fighter F-16 jets roar overhead.

''It was a bit of a surprise at first,'' said 48-year-old fisherman Constantino Valentin of the two weeks of NATO war games taking place this month on the Atlantic Ocean archipelago 310 miles off the west coast of Africa.

''But it's good to have them here. At least they spend a lot of money,'' he said of the 7,800 troops involved in the manoeuvres, the alliance's first major presence on African soil.

The NATO ''Steadfast Jaguar'' exercises are the final test of a 25,000-strong rapid-reaction force due to be ready from October to dive into troublespots around the world and deal with everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks.

Four years in the planning, the NATO Response Force is the flagship of alliance efforts to mend a common image of it as an irrelevant vestige of the Cold War and prove it can take on the more diverse security threats of the 21st century.

Just as important to NATO's image makeover is the choice of the remote former Portuguese colony for the exercises, and the lengths to which the alliance is going to show a friendly face to those who see it as a Trojan horse for U.S. meddling abroad.

Hungarian NATO troops have built a water purification plant as a gift to be left behind after the June 15-29 war games. Alliance ships are using ''passive sonar'' devices it pledges will not harm the humpback whales that feed in Cape Verdean waters.

''When we show up, the first reaction can be 'what's your ulterior motive?' But everyone's amazed that when they brush up against NATO it's a good experience,'' NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, James Jones, told reporters.

It is no accident that Cape Verde is hosting the event.

MOCK EVACUATIONS Keen to gain exposure for their islands and their tourism industry, Cape Verdean officials and residents have welcomed the war games. Street interviews with locals yielded not one bad word on the alliance.

''NATO is very welcome here. It is a chance for us to gain experience,'' said 59-year-old Antao Graca, administrator of a sporting club in the port of Melindo, referring to the fact that local troops were taking part in the operations.

More Reuters SY DB0934

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