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U.S. troops sent to build drone base in West Africa

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
February 25th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

While U.S. President Barack Obama declared last week that about 100 American troops have been deployed to the African nation of Niger, two U.S. defense officials - speaking on the condition of anonymity - said the troops would be setting up a base for unarmed drones to conduct surveillance.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - The announcement underscores the commitment of U.S. efforts to stem the spread of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the volatile region. Obama has previously expressed his commitment to fighting extremism without involving large numbers of U.S. ground forces.

In his letter to Congress, Obama said that the forces "will 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."

Obama also stated that the U.S. forces have been deployed with the consent of Niger's government. The forces were also deployed with weapons "for their own force protection and security," the president said.

The drone base will also help France with further intelligence on the militants its forces have been fighting in Mali, which neighbors Niger. The base will extend its reach not only of American intelligence, but also gather missions to strengthen Niger's own security forces.

One of the two U.S. defense officials who discussed the development confirmed the American troops would fly drones and other surveillance platforms from Niger military airstrips, tracking militant and refugee movement inside Mali and around the border, with the U.S. sharing intelligence with Niger's military.

The drones at the Niger base will be unarmed and used for surveillance, not airstrikes. However -- the development of a base in Niger raises the possibility that it could eventually be used for launching strikes.

The U.S. and Niger signed a status-of-forces-agreement last month, which spelled out legal protections and obligations of American forces that might operate in Niger in the future.

Africa is increasingly a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, even as al-Qaeda remains a threat in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere.

Last month's terrorist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria, in which at least 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed, is a striking example of the threat posed by extremists who have asserted power propelled by long-simmering ethnic tensions in Mali and the revolution in Libya.

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