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Pentagon to keep Africa Command headquarters in Europe

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has decided against moving the U.S. military's headquarters overseeing Africa from Germany to the United States, concluding the benefits of staying in Europe - closer to African hot spots - are worth the extra cost, officials say.

The Pentagon notified Congress of its decision this week. Some lawmakers had been pushing for Africa Command to move stateside, with South Carolina and Georgia promoted as possible locations.

"The decision was based on the operational needs of the commander," a U.S. defense official told Reuters, referring to General Carter Ham, the outgoing head of Africa Command.

Africa has become much more important for the U.S. military in the last decade. American forces played a prominent role in NATO operations during the uprising in Libya, and is assisting the French mission in Mali.

The decision about the location of AFRICOM, as it is known in the military, was shared with Congress the same week that news emerged of a deal with Niger that could pave the way for a U.S. drone base there.

AFRICOM is the only U.S. regional combatant command that is neither in the United States nor in its area of responsibility.

Central Command, which oversees the Middle East and Afghanistan, is headquartered in Florida. Pacific Command, which monitors Asia, is in Hawaii.

BENEFITS OF OVERLAP

The scope of the Pentagon study informing Panetta's decision focused exclusively on moving AFRICOM to the United States.

The Pentagon discarded the idea of locating it in Africa before AFRICOM was established five years ago, partly because of sensitivities among potential host nations.

Logistics and overlapping of resources with the military's European Command also made it logical to locate both in Stuttgart, Germany.

That overlap persists with U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine assets dedicated to AFRICOM located in places like Vicenza, Italy, and Ramstein, Germany.

Ham had recommended against moving the headquarters back to the United States. There are about 1,500 personnel at the command's base in Stuttgart, Germany, according to AFRICOM's website.

"The Secretary, informed by the judgment of the AFRICOM commander and a study of locations, decided the current location serves the operational needs of AFRICOM better than a (continental U.S.) location," the official said.

Among the benefits of staying put in Europe is the ability to better respond in a crisis, with shorter travel times for commanders to hot spots, one official said.

There are already some 2,000 military personnel assigned to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, according to AFRICOM's website.

AFRICOM gained its own rapid-reaction force last year, no longer relying on one hosted by the European command. For example, such a force could be mobilized if U.S. personnel in Mali needed to be evacuated.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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