U.S. may lift travel ban on 'important partner' Chad, Tillerson says

N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that Washington was considering lifting a travel ban on Chad, offering an olive branch to an ally in the fight against Islamist militant groups in West Africa.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a news conference with Chad's Foreign Minister Mahamat Zene Cherif in N'Djamena, Chad, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The top U.S. diplomat flew into the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, on the last day of a truncated tour of Africa with stops in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Nigeria - all frontline partners against Islamic State and al Qaeda offshoots.

It was his first diplomatic visit to the continent where many are still smarting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s reported dismissal of states there as “shithole” countries in January. Trump later denied making the comment.

Tillerson said Chad had taken important steps to strengthen control over its security and passports. “These steps I think are going to allow us to begin to normalise the travel relationship with Chad,” he told reporters.

A report on Chad’s progress was being prepared in Washington and would be reviewed by Trump next month, Tillerson said. “We have to wait for the final report,” he added.

Tillerson, who met Chadian President Idriss Deby previously while serving as chief executive of ExxonMobil, said he was concerned about the presence of Islamic State-allied militants in the Sahel and called Chad an “important partner”.

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In September, The Trump administration added Chad - along with North Korea and Venezuela - to a list of countries whose citizens are restricted from travelling to the United States. That drew protests from Chad and others, including France, which works closely with the Chadian military.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said at the time that Chad had to failed to send proof that it had taken a number of security measures.

Chad’s Deby “expressed his incomprehension” about the ban during a meeting with Tillerson on Monday, Foreign Minister Cherif Mahamat Zene said.

Tillerson flew to Nigeria after Chad for a stay of just a few hours, less than the overnight visit originally planned. His entourage said he had been forced to cut short the African tour on Monday to return to deal with urgent work in Washington.

He held talks with President Muhammadu Buhari behind closed doors in the capital, Abuja.

Following their talks, Buhari’s office issued a statement saying the president discussed plans to negotiate for the release of 110 girls abducted from a school in the northeastern town of Dapchi last month rather than use a military option.

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The girls are suspected of having been abducted by members of Boko Haram.

Tillerson also held a news conference with Nigeria’s foreign affairs minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, during which he said the United States was helping Nigeria in the fight against the jihadist group and in the hunt for the missing girls.

“Supporting, equipping, training and we can advise and provide information - I think that’s the best way we can help the government of Nigeria secure the release of these girls which we hope will be done in a peaceful manner,” he said.

In a statement issued later on Monday, the U.S. State Department said that during Tillerson’s meeting with Buhari, the secretary of state recognized Nigeria’s leadership in efforts to defeat Islamist militant groups in West Africa, and expressed concern about the recent attacks and abductions.

The Africa tour coincided with several urgent foreign policy developments, including Thursday’s announcement that Trump will meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.