U.S. Africa Command will start flying armed drones from its base in Niger, adding more firepower in a country where four U.S. soldiers were killed in an ambush by militants.
Niger and the U.S. this week agreed to arm the military’s surveillance mission in the country. Flights could begin within days, the New York Times reported, citing a memorandum between the countries.
For years, the U.S. military has debated the merits of arming Reapers based in Niger. The deadly Oct. 4 ambush in the country added urgency to the deliberations. AFRICOM on Friday declined to go into details of the arrangement.
“Niger and the U.S. stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven,” AFRICOM spokeswoman Robyn Mack said in a statement. “For operational security reasons, I will not comment on specific military authorities or permissions.”
An armed fleet of Reapers means the U.S. military will now have access to immediate air power in Western Africa, where the number of American servicemembers has grown in tandem with concerns about the growth of violent extremism in the region.
With 800 troops and construction on a new drone facility now underway, Niger has emerged as the main hub for U.S. operations directed against extremists such as Boko Haram, assorted al-Qaida affiliates and Islamic State militants.
During the past year, U.S. operations in Africa have become increasingly lethal, with some 500 strikes carried out against ISIS targets in late 2016 and a surge of activity this year in Somalia, where 30 strikes have been conducted.
Next year, AFRICOM is expected to shift its Niger drone flights from its post in the southern part of the West African nation to a more central location that will also put its northern neighbor Libya within range.
The new base, situated in the Nigerien city of Agadez, was slated to open this year, but construction delays have pushed its opening to late 2018.
The decision to arm unmanned aircraft in Niger comes two months after a contingent of Green Berets and Nigerien infantry were ambushed while on patrol near the village of Tongo-Tongo. The joint patrol came under heavy fire from what U.S. officials have described as a local ISIS affiliate.
AFRICOM is investigating the incident, which has raised questions about whether the U.S. was unprepared to conduct operations in a region that has grown increasingly volatile. While the U.S. had a surveillance aircraft over the battlefield during the fight, it was unarmed.
French jet fighters also were called in, but were unable to fire because of confusion on the ground.
For years, the U.S. military has conducted armed drone flights in east Africa from posts in Djibouti, striking targets in Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden into Yemen.
In Somalia, the U.S. also has boosted the number of forces on the ground, with 500 troops now stationed in a country where there was virtually no steady presence just a couple of years ago.
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