Kerry to pay first visits to Algeria and Morocco

The top U.S. diplomat will hold ‘strategic dialogue’ meetings in both Algiers and Rabat

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will make long-delayed visits to Algeria and Morocco next week on his first trip to both countries, his spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The top U.S. diplomat will first travel to Algiers for meetings with top officials ahead of similar talks in Morocco, Jen Psaki said.

She did not give exact dates but the Algerian foreign ministry said he was expected in Algiers on Wednesday-Thursday of next week.

Kerry had originally planned to visit the two countries late last year, but had to change his schedule at the last minute.

While in Algiers, Kerry will also co-chair the U.S.-Algeria Strategic Dialogue with Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra, Psaki said in a statement.

The dialogue, launched in October 2012, covers a range of bilateral and regional issues, "including political and security developments, boosting economic ties, and strengthening civil society," Psaki said.

Kerry's visit to Algeria, a regional heavyweight, comes just two weeks before presidential elections in which the ailing 77-year-old incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is controversially seeking a fourth term.

While in Rabat, Kerry and Moroccan Foreign Minister Salaheddine Mezouar will co-chair the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue.

He will also meet with senior officials "to discuss a range of bilateral and regional issues."

Kerry's visit to Morocco, considered an important U.S. ally in combatting radical Islamist ideology, will take place less than a month before the Security Council's annual vote on renewing the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the disputed Western Sahara.

The vote is likely to top Rabat's agenda during Kerry's visit.

Washington sought last year to task the force with human rights monitoring, an unexpected move fiercely opposed by Morocco, which controls most of the territory but is increasingly under pressure over its rights record there.

The proposal was eventually dropped after intense lobbying by the Moroccans.

The trip will come after a week-long visit to Europe and Saudi Arabia, during which Kerry arrived Wednesday on a surprise visit to Amman to meet with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the hope of keeping Middle East peace talks on track.

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