US may be allowed to use vital air base

War on Terrorism: Saudi Arabia
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The Independent Online

Saudi Arabia may end its ban on America using a highly prized military command centre for operations in Afghan-istan, after an unpublicised meeting between King Fahd and the US commander of Operation Enduring Freedom.

General Tommy Franks was unexpectedly summoned to see the King during a visit to Saudi Arabia last week. The monarch promised that his government would review its stance on the Combined Aerospace Operations Centre (CAOC) at Prince Sultan air base, according to defence and diplomatic sources. Tony Blair will be holding talks in Saudi Arabia today.

Details of the surprise meeting with General Franks, who has been directing operations from Central High Command (Centcom) in Florida, emerged when he arrived in Oman to see the British military exercise, Operation Saif Sareea II.

America has asked a number of times for permission to use the hi-tech centre near Al Kharj. The last attempt was by Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, during a visit to Riyadh earlier this month.

With King Fahd in virtual reclusion recently and playing little part in state affairs, the requests were turned down by the princes, who are jockeying for the succession. They are said to be deeply apprehensive about local reaction. Similar Saudi sensibilities led to its Royal Family declining to see Mr Blair during his tour of the region earlier this month.

If the Saudis do allow the base to be used for attacks on Afghanistan, they would want as little publicity as possible.

CAOC was built last June as a command post for enforcing no-fly zones over Iraq. More than 4,000 American army and air force personnel are stationed at the air base, with 320 aircraft including F-15s and F-16s, Stealth fighters and Hercules transporters.