New York Times, Sunday, February 24, 2013
Opening a new front in the drone wars against al-Qaeda and its affiliates, US President Barack Obama announced that about 100 US troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.
The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in US anti-terrorism efforts. The US military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 4,800 kilometres from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.
In a letter to Congress, Obama said about 40 US military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.
Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove al-Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighbouring Mali.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the US that has cleared the way for greater US military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to US troops there. President Mahamadou Issoufou last month voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, as well as growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist group to the south, in neighbouring Nigeria.
French and African troops have retaken Mali's northern cities but about 2,000 militants have melted back into desert and mountain hideaways and have begun a small campaign of harassment and terror, dispatching suicide bombers, attacking guard posts, infiltrating liberated cities or ordering attacks by militants hidden among civilians.
"Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations," Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said.
Benson did not say how many aircraft or troops would be deployed, but other US officials say the base could eventually have as many as 300 military service members and contractors.
For now, US officials said, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out missile strikes.
US officials would like to move the aircraft eventually to Agadez, a city in northern Niger that is closer to parts of northern Mali where cells of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups are operating.
The drone base will join several small airstrips in Africa, including one in Ethiopia, used for surveillance missions by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.
A handful of unarmed Predator drones will fill a desperate need for more detailed information on regional threats, including the militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya.
As the United States increased its presence in Niger, Russia sent a planeload of food, blankets and other aid to Mali on Friday, a day after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned of the spread of terrorism in North Africa, which Russia has linked to Western intervention in Libya.
Russian officials have pointed repeatedly to the unrest in North Africa and the political turmoil in Egypt as evidence that the Western-supported Arab spring has created a dangerous and chaotic situation and potential breeding grounds for terrorists.