“President Barack Obama has deployed American military personnel and drone aircraft to the African country of Niger, where they could be used to support a French counterterrorism mission in neighboring Mali.
Defense Department officials told NBC News that a first wave will include two Raptor surveillance drones and 250 to 300 military personnel, including remote pilots and security and maintenance crews. They are expected to arrive soon.
The officials stressed that the drones are meant for surveillance only. The White House has faced criticism for a legal memo concluding that the U.S. government can use drones to kill American citizens overseas in certain cases.
Besides helping the French in Mali, the drones could be used to provide intelligence on a growing Islamic militant threat throughout North and East Africa.
“The US has deployed 100 troops to Niger to assist French forces in neighbouring Mali, the US president has said.
The armed troops will provide intelligence support, President Barack Obama informed Congress on Friday.
A senior Niger official said in January that US Ambassador Bisa Williams requested permission to establish a drone base in a meeting with Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, the Reuters news agency reported.
Last month, the US and Niger struck an agreement on the status of US forces as the two nations “define precisely what kind of military presence we may have in Niger in the future”, a spokeswoman for the US state department said.
The new deployment of US forces are stationed in Niger with the government’s consent, Mr Obama said in his letter to Congress.
They will be armed for their own protection, he said.
“The US military has deployed about 100 troops in Niger to help coordinate intelligence sharing with the French, whose forces are currently fighting to seize Islamist-controlled territory in Mali, President Obama announced Friday.
The US forces are armed with “weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security,” Obama said in a letter to Congress, adding that Niger officials consented to their deployment. The president said the troops will operate out of Niger to help gather intelligence information about the conflict in Mali, but did not elaborate on any specific plans that will be assigned to them.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after the Nigerian Defense Ministry revealed their approval to host an airbase for unarmed American spy drones, which could be used in Mali to monitor Islamists.
“I am providing this report as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution,” Obama wrote in his letter.
And with US troops on Niger’s soil and the approval to set up an airbase on the Malian border, involvement in the conflict might only continue to escalate.