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CARTHAGE, (Tunisia): US Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a 10-year military cooperation deal with Tunis Wednesday during his first stop on a regional tour, hailing US-Tunisia collaboration over the conflict in neighbouring Libya.

The past decade has seen growing cooperation between the Pentagon and Tunisia, particularly on counter-terror training and securing the North African country’s long border with Libya, where jihadist groups operate and world powers back rival sides in a complex war.

“We look forward to expanding this relationship to help Tunisia protect its maritime ports and land borders, deter terrorism and keep the corrosive efforts of autocratic regimes out of your country,” Esper said in a speech after meeting President Kais Saied.

Speaking at a cemetery in Carthage housing the remains of over 2,800 American soldiers, mostly killed in World War II, he warned of the worldwide threat posed by “violent extremists”.

Esper also accused US rivals China and Russia of continuing “to intimidate and coerce their neighbours while expanding their authoritarian influence worldwide, including on this continent.”

He said Moscow and Beijing’s “malign, coercive, and predatory behaviour” aimed to “undermine African institutions”.

Washington in 2015 classified Tunisia as a Major Non-NATO Ally, allowing for reinforced military cooperation. The two sides regularly hold joint exercises, and since 2011 Washington has invested more than $1 billion in the Tunisian military, according to the US Africa Command, Africom.

The deal signed Wednesday, full details of which have not been disclosed, lasts a decade and covers training and after-sales service of sophisticated American weapons, said officials in Esper’s entourage.

Tunisia in 2016 denied a Washington Post report that it had allowed the US to operate drones from its territory for missions in Libya against the Islamic State jihadist group.

But a court martial in 2017 in a case of sexual harassment by an American officer, reported in the US defence press, publicly confirmed the presence of an American squadron operating drones from within a Tunisian base in the northern region of Bizerte.