Fri Feb 22, 2013(Reuters)
The Pentagon has deployed about 100 troops to the West African nation of Niger to conduct unmanned reconnaissance flights over Mali and share intelligence with French forces fighting al Qaeda-affiliated militants, President Barack Obama told Congress on Friday.
Obama, in a letter to congressional
leaders, said the last 40 of the approximately 100 military personnel had arrived in Niger on Wednesday and were “deployed with weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security.” “This deployment will provide support for
intelligence collection and will also
facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region,” the president said.
The United States and Niger signed a
Status of Forces Agreement last month
that governs the presence of American
troops in the country, paving the way for
sending unarmed drones and military
personnel. A Pentagon official said U.S. Africa Command, which handles military ties with Africa, had sent the unmanned
planes to Niger “to support a range of
regional security missions and
engagements with partner nations.”
“This effort is designed to promote
regional stability in support of U.S.
diplomacy and national security and to
strengthen relationships with regional
leaders committed to security and
prosperity,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
France intervened in Mali, which borders Niger, last month as Islamist forces, who seized control of the north in the confusion following a military coup in
March 2012, pushed towards the capital
Bamako. That lifted Mali to the forefront of U.S. and European security concerns, with fears the Islamists would turn the country into a base for international attacks.
The United States already has drones and surveillance aircraft stationed at several points around Africa. Its only permanent military base is in the small country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, more than 3,000 miles from Mali. Niger gave permission for U.S. surveillance drones to be stationed on its territory to improve intelligence on al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters in northern Mali and the wider Sahara, a senior Niger government source said in January.