Israel turns to eastern Africa for alliance against Islamicism

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JERUSALEM — Israel has identified eastern Africa as an important strategic interest and is stepping up ties with nations in the region in a joint effort to control the spread of Islamic extremists, officials said Thursday.

In effect, Israel would become a player siding with Christian-led African nations in conflicts with Muslim movements, a fault line that has sharpened around the continent in recent years. Israeli moves come as the United States as well has hiked up military support for African governments, in large part to combat al-Qaida-linked groups.

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hosted the leaders of Uganda and Kenya earlier this week, following a meeting at the United Nations in September with the president of the newly liberated South Sudan, the mainly Christian and animist nation that gained independence from Muslim Arab-led Sudan in July.

The outcome of the meetings — and the extent of Israel’s moves to ally with the Africans — remains murky. Kenya’s leader went so far as to say Israel promised to provide security assistance to his country to help protect its borders Israeli officials say such claims are premature, but say an alliance with Kenya and other eastern African countries is natural.

“We have joint interests and we believe that mutual cooperation can be beneficial to us all,” said Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev.

Uganda and Kenya have been battling al-Shabab, a Somalia-based group that is linked to the al-Qaida terror network. At the same time, there are growing fears that Sudan and South Sudan could return to war because of lingering disputes.