The US has set up a new drone base in Niger reportedly aimed at fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates in Africa and helping French troops in their war on Mali.
A report by The New York Times said on Friday that the US deployed a number of Predator drones to Niger, suggesting a shift in Washington’s anti-terrorism efforts towards Africa.
“Consistent with our partners in the region, this decision allows for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations within the region,” a US defense official said on condition of anonymity.
The unarmed Predator drones fly out of a base with a 100-strong contingent of US Air Force personnel in the Nigerien capital, Niamey, the Times said.
On Friday, US President Barack Obama announced that 100 US military personnel were sent to Niger to provide “support for intelligence collection” and to “facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region.”
US officials say that for now the Predator drones are unarmed and serve surveillance purposes only, but may be used to carry out missile strikes in the future if needed.
The new drone base is expected to join a constellation of small airstrips for surveillance missions by drones or turboprop planes on the African continent in coming years.
Predator drones and Reaper drones are known as the weapon of choice of the CIA in Pakistan and Yemen.
Last month, Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement with the US, clearing the way for a more convenient Washington military involvement in the African nation.
Niger is a mostly desert country on the eastern border of Mali, where France has launched a war on January 11 under the pretext of halting the advance of fighters who control the north of the country. The war has left thousands of Malians homeless.
Some political analysts believe that Mali’s abundant natural resources, including gold and uranium reserves, could be one of the reasons behind the French war.