The United States is relocating some of its troops from a base in Niger Republic’s capital, Niamey, to the Agadez area, according to the Pentagon.
The troops’ movement comes as Burkina Faso, Niger’s south west neighbours and one of the staunchest supporters of the putschists, deploys units of its military in the country, apparently in reaction to the threat by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to restore democracy there.
Washington has some 1,100 military personnel in Niger, but the defence department said they have largely remained on bases while curtailing activities such as joint training after the July military takeover.
The United States “is repositioning some of our personnel and some of our assets from Air Base 101 in Niamey to Air Base 201 in Agadez”, Deputy Pentagon Press Secretary Sabrina Singh told journalists.
“There’s no immediate threat to US personnel or violence on the ground,” she said, describing the move as a “precautionary measure”. A “small group” of personnel will remain at Air Base 101 following the move, which is currently ongoing, Singh said. She also said “some non-essential personnel and contractors” had previously departed the country.
Niger has been a key base for both American and French anti-jihadist operations, and the repositioning of US troops comes after a French defence ministry source said Paris was holding talks with Niger on withdrawing “elements” of its presence there.
Nigérien Air Base 201, was constructed at a considerable cost of $110 million, featuring a 6,200-foot runway tailored to accommodate MQ-9 Reapers and manned aircraft. The disruption of the US drone program in Niger is a significant blow to the US fight against terrorism in the region. The drones have been instrumental in killing high-level al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders.
In 2018, the United States started arming its fleet of MQ-9 Drones stationed in the West African nation of Niger. The MQ-9 Reapers have sufficient range to strike targets all over West Africa and North African countries, a reality which is unsettling to defense planners in the region. In a particular incident, an MQ-91C Gray Eagle drone operating under the banner of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) crashed in Agadez, Niger on 29 February. An AGM-114 Hellfire missile detached during the crash of the MQ-1C drone, was spotted intact on a photograph on social media beside an unknown man.
The closure of the Nigerien airspace following the coup has brought the U.S. military’s drone flights from Nigérien Air Base 201 to an abrupt halt.
Burkina Faso military units had earlier arrived in coup-hit Niger. On August 31, the Burkina-Faso government approved the bill on sending the country’s military contingent to Niger to prevent terrorism. It had earlier sent Super Tucano jets to Niamey to assist it in the event of any military intervention by the ECOWAS.
In August, the United States had warned the Niger junta that it may be pushed to intervene militarily if the country’s military rulers do not return to constitutional order. US acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made the warning during a visit to Niger on Wednesday. She said that the US understands its legal responsibilities to protect its citizens and interests in Niger, and that it would not hesitate to use force if necessary.
In response, Russia warned that military intervention in Niger by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) would lead to a “protracted confrontation” and destabilize the wider Sahel region. The Russian foreign ministry said that such an intervention would be a “grave mistake” and would only serve to prolong the crisis in Niger.
Bola Tinubu, Nigeria’s president and chairman of ECOWAS said, “The ECOWAS leadership will not accept any action that impedes the smooth functioning of legitimate authority in Niger or any part of West Africa”. The Niger military is blaming the government’s incompetence and finding it incompatible to fight the terrorism which is growing in the Sahel.