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US defense chief visits North Africa, World War II cemetery

TUNIS – U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper met with Tunisia's president Wednesday, kicking off a North African tour amid growing concern about lawlessness in Libya.

Esper is expected to travel to Algeria on Thursday and Morocco on Friday, according to a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. It is his first trip to Africa as defense secretary.

Esper met with Tunisian President Kaïs Saied and Tunisian Defense Minister Brahim Bartagi. He then visited the American military cemetery in Carthage to pay respects to the more than 6,500 U.S. soldiers killed or missing in action in the region during World War II, according to the American Battle Monuments Commission.

Talks focused on defense, security and the fight against terrorism, according to a statement by the Tunisian president's office.

Tunis and Washington maintain close military cooperation, notably in training Tunisian forces and securing Tunisia's southern border with Libya. The U.S. and Germany have helped establish an electronic surveillance system to prevent infiltration across the border.

The Tunisian president reiterated his country's willingness to facilitate in any way the search for a political solution for Libya, which, he said, must ultimately be resolved by Libyans. Tunisia is among the country's hardest hit by the instability in Libya. The busy border was once used by workers and tourists.

Tunisia saw two bloody attacks in 2015 that killed dozens of foreign tourists perpetrated by Tunisians who had received weapons training from extremists in Libya. Tunisia is considered an ally in U.S. efforts against terrorism in the region.

Esper also held a working meeting with his Tunisian counterpart, Bartagi, and ranking officers in the Tunisian army.

That meeting concluded with the signing of a “roadmap” tracing out bilateral military cooperation in the decade ahead, a statement from Tunisia's defense ministry said. The accord focuses on improving operational capacities of the Tunisian army.