US Africom Begins 1st Peacekeeper Supply Operation

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BERLIN (AP) -- The U.S. Air Force is airlifting heavy machinery to Rwandan troops serving in an international mission in Darfur, the first time the new U.S. Africa Command has undertaken a large-scale peacekeeper support operation.

A C-17 transport aircraft brought two oversize recovery trucks Thursday to Rwandan peacekeepers serving with the United Nations-African Union mission in Sudan's western Darfur region, Africom spokesman Eric Elliott said by telephone from Kigali, Rwanda.

The supplies were the first part of an airlift of equipment and vehicles for the humanitarian effort in Darfur pledged by President George W. Bush on Jan. 5. The 26,000-strong peacekeeping force in Darfur has struggled with a lack of troops and transport.

Most of the estimated 240 containers of equipment will be flown in by civilian aircraft contracted by the State Department, but only the U.S. Air Force had the capability to bring in the heavier vehicles, the military said.

The 20,000-pound trucks being flown in are equipped with cranes and will operate in support of Rwandan peacekeeper convoys to help repair vehicles along their routes, Elliott said.

Nine of the vehicles will be flown in on a total of five flights that started Wednesday and are scheduled to finish Friday, Elliott said. The civilian part of the airlift is to begin after that.

The planes, normally based at Travis Air Force Base in California but temporarily based in Djibouti in east Africa, are also carrying in materials requested by the Rwandans such as water purification systems, water trailers, tents and spare parts for vehicles, he said.

The planes, under the direction of U.S. Africa Command, pick up the supplies in Kigali and then fly them into Sudan, Elliott said.

"It's going pretty well so far," he said.

The airlift is the first major mission planned by the air component of Africom - Air Forces Africa, also known as Seventeenth Air Force, which is headquartered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

Africom was formally activated on Oct. 1, 2008 and is based in Stuttgart. Before that, U.S. European Command had coordinated airlift missions for Darfur.

Before Africom's creation, American military programs on the continent had been divvied up among three other commands more concerned with NATO and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Though many African nations have worried that Africom might signal an increased U.S. military presence on the continent, Washington has sought to cast as a different kind of command, one that would focus American military might not on fighting wars, but on preventing them through "soft power."

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