ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) - A top U.S. military commander proposed American help Monday in monitoring West Africa's Gulf of Guinea to secure an unstable region that holds as much as 10 percent of the world's oil reserves.
Gen. Charles Wald, the deputy commander of the U.S. military's European Command for Europe and Africa, said he raised the offer in talks with West African and national officials in Nigeria - Africa's biggest oil producer and most populous nation.
Britain's Jane's Weekly defense publication has said the United States was readying a proposed African Coastal Security Program to block pirates, smugglers and other criminals in the Gulf of Guinea and around Africa.
The issue is being studied in preliminary feasibility surveys, European Command officials have told The Associated Press.
In Abuja, Nigeria's capital, Wald said he and Nigerian officials, including Deputy Defense Minister Roland Oritsejafor, discussed finding "a way that we can cooperate together in monitoring the waters off the Gulf of Guinea."
Wald called it a "hugely important" issue to West African nations bordering the gulf.
"It is up to the political leaders, if they decide it is in their common interests to protect the area, we will support that," he said.
He gave no immediate details of what assistance might be involved. Jane's has suggested U.S. help could include naval vessels, communications equipment and training, as well as a counterterrorism base in the Gulf of Guinea.
Earlier this year, the United States funded a feasibility study on the creation of a possible deep-water port at the island nation of Sao Tome and Principe, off Nigeria.
Nigeria, Africa's largest oil exporter, is the world's No. 7 oil exporter and the fifth-biggest source of U.S. oil imports.
Surrounding nations in the Gulf of Guinea likewise are increasing production amid a West Africa oil boom, as the United States, Europe and Asia look for alternatives to oil from the politically volatile Middle East.
Asked whether the United States was willing to help stem attacks against Nigeria's oil industry, Wald said, "Wherever there's evil, we want to get there and fight it."
Nigeria's oil industry has been plagued by armed attacks from militants - many seeking a share of the country's oil wealth - that at times in the past year shut down 10 percent to 40 percent of Nigeria's daily production of 2.5 million barrels of crude a day.
"Where you have wealth, if you don't protect it, you are vulnerable to terrorists and illegal arms dealers and so you are not safe," he said.
The West and Central African regions produce 15 percent of U.S. oil imports, a figure that could rise to 20 percent in the next decade "if it remains attractive to investment," according to a U.S. Congress-commissioned report last week by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The study urged Washington to increase intelligence and counter-terror efforts in Africa. It also should increase funding for training of African armies from $10 million to $100 million, with an equal amount devoted to African peace initiatives, the analysts said.
Wald said the United States was interested in expanding training and "potentially" helping equip regional peacekeepers to stem conflicts themselves, Wald said.
Three African nations are singled out by the Congress-commissioned report as facing the most dire terrorism threats in Africa - Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria - nations with large Muslim populations with which the authors recommended "expanding engagement."