The United States has deployed several Predator drones to Niger to fly surveillance missions in support of French forces in Mali, a US defense official said Friday.
The unarmed robotic aircraft are flying out of Niamey at a base with a 100-strong contingent of Air Force personnel, the defense official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Consistent with our partners in the region, this decision allows for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) operations within the region,” the defense official said.
President Barack Obama announced earlier on Friday that the US troops were sent to the West African country to 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 slow-flying turboprop planes, along with the more advanced Reaper drone, are known as the weapon of choice in a covert CIA air war against Al-Qaeda militants mostly in Pakistan and Yemen.
But officials insisted the drones sent to Niger would not be equipped with missiles and instead would be used purely for spying on militants in Mali.
US officials had said previously they hoped to set up a base for drones in Niger to bolster surveillance of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies, a move Niger had welcomed.
Washington has expressed fears that AQIM, one of the groups that seized control of northern Mali 10 months ago, was expanding its reach in the region and turning into a potential 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 that has yet to fully deploy.
The United States has backed the French effort, with the Pentagon providing transport aircraft, intelligence and some aerial refueling tankers.