Niger said Wednesday it was ready to host a base for US drones monitoring movements by Al-Qaeda-linked groups currently based in northern Mali.
“If Niger has an opportunity to receive support in the shape of aircraft or drones to monitor suspicious movements from Mali, we will not turn our nose up at it,” Defence Minister Karidjo Mahamadou told AFP.
He added however that he was not aware of any formal deal allowing the deployment of US drones on Niger’s soil.
A US official said Monday that the Pentagon was planning to station drones in the region — most likely in Niger — to bolster surveillance of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies.
Washington has expressed fears that AQIM, one of the groups that seized control of northern Mali 10 months ago, was expanding its ambit in the region and turning into a global security threat.
France launched a military operation in its former colony on January and has already recaptured the north’s main cities. It hopes to hand over to a multinational African force which has yet to fully deploy.
US President Barack Obama’s administration has provided transport planes to help ferry French weapons and troops and offered to share intelligence with Paris from surveillance aircraft, including reportedly unmanned Global Hawk spy planes.
The United States and Niger signed a status of forces agreement Monday, which will provide legal safeguards for any American forces in the country. The Pentagon secures such agreement for base arrangements or troop deployments.
AQIM fighters have been crossing northern Mali’s desert borders with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger with ease to run what is believed to be a lucrative drug and migrant smuggling operation to Europe.
They are well-trained, have abundant weaponry and hold several Western hostages but are heavily reliant on fuel for their movements in the vast Sahelian expanse.