updated 3/12/2004 5:59:43 PM ET 2004-03-12T22:59:43

U.S. military cargo planes have been delivering food, blankets and other supplies to forces in Chad as they have fought Islamic militants there, and U.S. surveillance aircraft have helped monitor and track the militants, officials said Friday.

The Chadian army battled Islamic militants near a remote village on the country’s western border with Niger this week, killing 43 members of a group suspected of links with al-Qaida, the Chadian government said Friday. Three soldiers were also killed, the government said.

In Washington, the militants were identified by State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, which the department has branded a terror organization. The Salafist group is an Algerian Islamic militant organization believed to have ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida.

“The Chadian military forces have now conducted a successful action against the terrorist organization,” Boucher said. “We congratulate them for that. They’ve most recently had a military success.”

Boucher said no U.S. forces participated in the conflict.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said U.S. military cargo planes have delivered basic supplies such as food and blankets to the Chadian forces, and U.S. surveillance aircraft helped monitor and track movements of the Salafist Group in recent months.

Starting this summer, the United States will train forces from Chad and Niger in countering terror, officials said.

U.S. troops already are training forces in Mali and Mauritania on controlling their borders against an influx of terror groups and weapons.

The U.S. training is based on suspicions that the al-Qaida terror network may be recruiting and planning new attacks in the deserts and jungles of Africa.

Some 200 U.S. soldiers have been deployed throughout the continent to patrol alongside local armies or hunt terrorists on short notice if necessary.

Western military and security officials in recent years have singled out the Salafist group as a particular threat amid concerns of possible terrorist activity along ancient Sahara trading routes linking Arab and African nations.

Analysts see al-Qaida as finding an ideal new staging ground in Africa, where governments are weak, poorly paid authorities are easily bribed, and communications are slow and in some places don’t exist. Also, African armies, relatively small and poorly equipped, have difficulty monitoring their vast territories, U.S. officials have said.

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