ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar, Jan 21, 2009 -- General William E. Ward, commander of U.S. Africa Command, reaffirmed his commitment to a security partnership with Madagascar during his first official visit to the island nation on January 20, 2009.

Ward met with Malagasy President Marc Ravalomanana and other top government officials to discuss potential security assistance programs in this region.

"I am very, very grateful you are here," Ravalomanana told Ward. "Madagascar is a very important country. I need your help. I need your support."

Emphasizing the importance of U.S. Africa Command's relationship with Madagascar, Ward told the president, "I want to assure you that we will do our best (to work) with you."

Madagascar, with a population of about 20 million, gained independence from France in 1960. It is the world's fourth-largest island, located in the Indian Ocean about 400 kilometers east of southeastern Africa.

In a press conference with about 20 Malagasy reporters, Ward fielded questions on the Department of Defense's newest geographic unified command and its mission in Africa. U.S.AFRICOM works to assist militaries of dozens if African nations to increase their security capacity. Until the creation of U.S. Africa Command, U.S. military relations with Madagascar were coordinated by U.S. Pacific Command, headquartered in Hawaii.

"I am here today to listen and to learn; to listen to your leaders (and) learn of your ideas, so I can do my best to work in partnership with you as you work to increase your capacity to provide for your security," Ward told the press.

During the one-day visit, Ward met separately with Prime Minister Charles Rabemananjara, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marcel Ranjeva, and Defense Minister Cecile Manorohanta. He also met with U.S. Ambassador Neils Marquardt and the U.S. Embassy country team. Those meetings gave him a better understanding of the country's priorities.

Past military-to-military engagements between the United States and Madagascar, though few, have focused mainly on maritime safety and security. In July, 2009, Africa Command will coordinate a visit by a U.S. Navy ship to Madagascar, during which U.S. service members will work with the Malagasy Defense Force to enhance maritime skills such as small boat operations and protecting its territorial waters from illegal fishing.

"Security takes many forms," Ward said. "In the case of Madagascar, I'm here to understand from you what security means to you. By listening to your leaders, I can gain a better understanding of what those requirements are."