The US military has resumed air operations in the East African nation of Djibouti, a critical location in the fight against terrorism, a US defense official tells CNN.
The move comes days after the US grounded its aircraft at the request of the Djiboutian government following two accidents.
Both accidents happened Tuesday and involved a Marine Corps Harrier jet crashing at the country’s international airport and a Marine Corps CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter sustaining damage while landing during a military exercise known as Alligator Dagger.
After the accidents, the Djiboutian government requested the US halt all flying operations, three defense officials told CNN.
The US decision to halt air operations has also led the military to cancel the Alligator Dagger exercise.
There are about 4,000 US personnel in Djibouti, based at Camp Lemonnier, and US forces there support military operations against the terrorist groups in neighboring Somalia and nearby Yemen. The grounding of aircraft could affect counterterrorism operations in both Somalia and Yemen, such as drone strikes, and support to Camp Lemonnier the officials said.
Following the halt to operations, the US military and the State Department worked with the government of Djibouti to get approval for flights on a case-by-case basis to ensure support for those missions continued, two defense officials told CNN. Medical evacuation and search-and-rescue flights were allowed to proceed during the pause, two US military officials said.
Despite the grounding of aircraft, the US military was able to carry out an airstrike Thursday against Al Shabaab militants near Jilib, Somalia, killing three fighters and destroying a vehicle with a mounted heavy machine gun, according to a statement from US Africa Command, which oversees operations on the continent.
The US military places a lot of importance on its ability to base forces in Djibouti given its critically strategic location near countries like Somalia and Yemen, where the US regularly targets terrorists in airstrikes.
“Djibouti is a very strategic location for us,” Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the head of Africa Command, told Congress last month. Central Command, Special Operations Command, European Command and Transportation Command also use the location, he added, “so it’s very, very important to us.”
But US officials have recently expressed concern about the growing influence of China in Djibouti, noting its establishment of a military base there its close economic links with the country.
Waldhauser acknowledged both challenges during his appearance before Congress last month.
“We are taking significant steps on the counterintelligence side so that we have all the defenses that we need there, there is no doubt about that,” he said, referring to the proximity of the new Chinese base.
“But I think that one of the challenges that we’re going to have is things like this,” he said. “I mean, the Djiboutian government is probably over $1.2 billion in debt to the Chinese. At some point in time that money needs to be collected,” which raised the possibility that China might be given control of the port of Djibouti to help pay off the debt.
“The worst-case scenario if it happened, if the Chinese did take over that port – and, again, we have assurances from the Djiboutians they won’t – but if they did, I mean, down the way that that restricts our access, that restricts the Navy’s ability to get in there and just simply offload supplies and the like,” he said.
“It’s a strategic geography location for us, and we need to keep it,” he added.