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NAPLES, Italy — The nation can’t afford to lose sight of the importance the European theater plays in world security, Vice Adm. John "Sandy" Winnefeld Jr., said Monday moments after relinquishing control of the U.S. Navy’s 6th Fleet.

"I think the challenges [for my successor] are to continue the momentum, to make sure that the Navy and the nation really do understand the increasing importance of this theater, both Europe and Africa," said Winnefeld, who leaves after a year in command.

"We’ve had a very good example lately of the challenges in Europe, with the Russians who basically exhibited aggression of a nature that we’ve not seen them do," he said, referring to violence that erupted Friday between Russia and Georgia in the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Winnefeld — whose next assignment will be in the plans office of the Joint Chiefs — touted his sailors’ progress in Africa as a "huge operational success," through the Navy’s Africa Partnership Station, a mission to strengthen U.S.-African ties and impart seafaring knowledge to participating African nations.

"I think that the challenges will grow as the theater continues to grow in importance. Our nation is starting to understand how important Africa is," he said.

Vice Adm. Bruce Clingan, who pinned on his third star Monday, replaces Winnefeld after being director of Warfare Integration/Senior National Representative on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations in the Pentagon.

He now also becomes deputy commander of Naval Forces Europe, Joint Force Maritime Component commander Europe, commander Strike and Support Forces NATO, and Allied commander Joint Command Lisbon.

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