By Lesley Wroughton
ALGIERS (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday Washington was looking to increase its security assistance to Algeria to help it tackle militancy in the vast Sahel region to its south, home to one of the world's most active branches of al Qaeda.
Algeria, a major gas supplier to Europe, is already a key partner in Washington's campaign against Islamist fighters who have tried to spread across the Maghreb after the French military drove them out of Mali last year.
Kerry was originally scheduled to visit Algeria late last year but arrived just weeks before President Abdelaziz Bouteflika runs for re-election in a vote in which he is widely expected to win a fourth term.
"We really want to work in a cooperative way, and we want to do this so that Algerian security services have the tools and the training needed in order to defeat al Qaeda and other terrorist groups," Kerry told a news conference.
Algeria's Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said the United States should give the region more access to its intelligence.
"What the U.S. can do, because nobody else can do it, is for instance, share electronic intelligence with the armed forces and security agencies in the region. This is a qualitative edge that only the US can provide," he said.
Neighboring Libya is struggling to curb the turmoil that has continued unabated since the 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi. Islamist fighters have exploited the chaos, taking shelter in Libya's southern deserts but also in remote mountains in Tunisia.
Attacks in Algeria are rare since the country ended an 11-year conflict with Islamists in 2002, but the risks are still high. Last year, al Qaeda fighters raided a gas plant in the Algerian southern desert, killing 40 oil workers, all but one of whom were foreigners.
Kerry also said the United States would do more to build stronger commercial and investment ties between the countries. He said large-scale youth unemployment in Algeria was troubling and greater investment would help bolster job creation.
He was due to meet later on Thursday with Bouteflika, the 77-year-old independence veteran who has governed Algeria for 15 years since helping to end the North African state's war which killed around 200,000 people.
Bouteflika is expected to easily win another five-year term after 15 years in power in the vote on April 17, despite concerns over his health since suffering a stroke last year.
Some in the Algerian opposition described the timing of Kerry's visit as odd, saying it was an indirect statement of support to Bouteflika's election bid.
"We look forward to elections that are transparent and in line with international standards, and the United States will work with the president that the people of Algeria choose," Kerry said.
Backed by the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) party, which has dominated Algerian politics since independence in 1962, and with major opposition parties weak, split or boycotting the vote, Bouteflika is almost assured of a win.
Bouteflika's opponents say the dominance of a clan of FLN veterans and army generals make the election an unfair battle, and they ask how the president will govern if he cannot even campaign due to his condition.
Since the stroke that put him in Paris hospital for several months at the start of last year, Bouteflika has rarely appeared and has spoken in public on television only to announce his candidacy last month.
(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)