Jan. 29 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. and Niger reached an agreement allowing American military personnel to be stationed in the West African country and enabling them to take on Islamist militants in neighboring Mali, according to U.S. officials.
The accord could make it possible for the U.S. to base unmanned surveillance aircraft there, said one official, adding that no decision has been made to station the drones. President Barack Obama’s administration doesn’t intend to send combat troops to Niger, a White House official said.
The pact will allow deployment of U.S. personnel as well as other military assets in Niger to respond to the terror threat in the region, a U.S. defense official said. The so-called status-of-forces agreement grants immunity from domestic laws to U.S. personnel stationed in the country. The moves come after France began airstrikes in Mali on Jan. 11 and later deployed ground troops, wresting control of several cities, including Timbuktu yesterday, from Islamist militants.
European and U.S. leaders have said northern Mali is turning into a haven for Islamist militants intent on attacking Western targets.
While the contours of the U.S. military presence are still being worked out, the deal is intended to increase intelligence collection, among other purposes, the defense official said. The officials all asked to not be named in discussing the accord, which has not been announced.
The agreement with Niger has been in the works for more than a year and isn’t tied to the French actions in Mali, Pentagon spokesmen George Little told reporters today. Still, agreements of these types can “establish, potentially a military presence, or at least a presence of U.S. troops in the region,” he said.
“These agreements tend to be frameworks” and “signal deeper cooperation with other countries, and we see that happening with the government of Niger,” Little said.
The New York Times reported yesterday on the accord and the possibility of deploying drones in the country. Asked about that prospect, Little declined to discuss any specific capability that might be based in Niger.
The pact comes after the Pentagon announced an agreement on Jan. 26 to provide aerial refueling support to French troops battling extremists in Mali, including militants operating under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Together, the accords signal wider U.S. involvement in confronting terror groups in North Africa. The U.K. has already provided transport and surveillance aircraft to help the French mission.
U.S. Air Force C-17 transports have ferried more than 391 tons of equipment and almost 500 French military personnel into Mali’s capital Bamako, Little, the Pentagon spokesman, said today. Air Force tankers started refueling French aircraft conducting air operations over Mali on Jan. 27, offloading more than 33,000 pounds of fuel, Little said.
Malian forces yesterday entered Timbuktu, with French forces encircling the historic city and now hold its airport, Mali’s army spokesman, Colonel Diarran Kone, said by phone from the capital, Bamako. The advance follows the capture of Gao, about 590 miles (950 kilometers) north of Bamako on Jan. 26.
At least 11,000 people have been forced from their homes by the recent fighting, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. About 230,000 have been displaced since the crisis began, the agency said Jan. 22.
A meeting in Addis Ababa, organized by the African Union and attended by Malian President Dioncounda Traore and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, today received pledges of $455.5 million for an African-led Mali force with funds coming from the U.S., the European Union and France. Japan will spend $120 million on Mali refugees and security.
If approved, the U.S. base in Niger would likely provide surveillance for the French-led operation in Mali, the Times reported. While initially only unarmed drones would fly out of the base, the site may be used for missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens, the newspaper said.
General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. military command in Africa, said the subject was “too operational for me to confirm or deny,” the Times reported, citing an e-mail it received from Ham. The Africa Command’s plan still needs approval from the Pentagon, the White House and officials in Niger, the newspaper reported.
Since the ouster of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, which unleashed a flow of weapons to militants in the region, the Obama administration has been torn between wanting to avoid entanglements in the region while warning of the dangers of advancing Islamist extremism.
The U.S. has shown reluctance to provide weapons or American troops to the fight in Mali, just as it has largely sidestepped the civil war in Syria. U.S. officials say that shifting alliances among at least four rebel groups in Mali have made it hard to get a clear picture of the conflict there.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered an insight earlier this month into the Obama administration’s internal deliberations when he pointed to legal questions being raised over France’s request for U.S. military help.
“I find that every time I turn around, I face a group of lawyers,” Panetta told reporters on Jan. 16 in Rome. The administration’s legal counsel wanted “to be sure that they feel comfortable that we have the legal basis to do what we are being requested to do” in aiding the French, he said.
Those questions were resolved and the U.S. is now providing airlift, intelligence as well as refueling French military planes.
The U.S. couldn’t directly aid Mali’s current government, which was installed through a coup, Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokeswoman, said Jan. 15. She said there were no restrictions on helping allies such as France.
France intervened in Mali on Jan. 11 after Islamist fighters overran the town of Konna, sparking concern they might advance toward Bamako. The French Defense Ministry said that 2,500 soldiers have arrived in the landlocked West African country, which gained independence from France in 1960. African nations are deploying a force that may total as many as 3,300 troops.
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