Armed American drones will soon begin flying over Niger following approval of their use by the West African nation. The move marks a significant expansion of the US military's footprint in this part of Africa, where its reach has so far been limited.
The government of Niger has permitted the Pentagon to operate armed drones out of the country's capital, Niamey, defense officials said on Thursday, according to the New York Times. The newspaper cited a memorandum of understanding signed earlier this week by the US African Command (AFRICOM) and the West African nation.
The memorandum calls for the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to be armed by the AFRICOM initially. The drones will eventually be re-deployed to a Nigerien air base in Agadez, along with 500 US troops.
Previous media reports indicated that Niger had requested the deployment of armed US drones in a bid to wipe out Boko Haram and other jihadist groups operating on its border with Mali, but it was unknown that an agreement had been reached. Speaking to Reuters, an unnamed US official also said that permission for the use of armed drones had been granted earlier this week, but the capability had not yet been put to use.
A spokeswoman for the Pentagon declined to disclose specific details of the drone deployment. "The government of Niger and the US stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven. For operational security reasons, I will not comment on specific military authorities or permissions," Major Audricia Harris said.
"This operation supports the long-term strategic partnership between the United States and Niger, as well as the ongoing effort to counter violent extremism throughout the region," the Defense Department said in an emailed response to the New York Times.
In early November, Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Mountari told Reuters in an interview that he "asked them some weeks ago to arm them [the drones] and use them as needed." Asked if the US had accepted the request, he said: "Our enemies will find out."
The development would allow the US military to significantly expand its reach in West Africa. So far, American aircraft are flying missions against targets in Yemen, Somalia and Libya from its bases in Djibouti and southern Italy, according to the NYT.
Source: News Agencies, Edited by website team