WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is moving toward setting up a military base in northwest Africa from which to operate surveillance drones to collect intelligence on Islamic militants in the region, several U.S. defense officials said Tuesday.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan is still in the works, said the base in Niger would position the U.S. to provide more help to French troops fighting al-Qaida-backed militants in neighboring Mali.
Washington has said it does not intend to put troops in Mali to assist in ground operations against the militants, but it has provided France with a variety of support, including aerial refueling of French fighters, transport of French troops and intelligence support.
The U.S. and Niger signed an agreement Monday, after months of negotiations, that sets the rules for greater American military presence there. Niger is seen as the most likely location for a new U.S. drone base, but the decision is not final.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the agreement setting a legal framework for a future U.S. military presence is an important step, but he declined to say whether it foretells the establishment of a U.S. drone base.
"This is a very important agreement, and we are, of course, looking to work with them to define precisely what kind of military presence we may have in Niger in the future. That presence has not yet been defined," Little said.
Little said the agreement, which he said was completed in recent days, was months in the making and was not directly related to recent developments in Mali.
Niger has accepted basing both U.S. conventional and special operations troops there to advise and assist Niger's military in securing their border and keep tabs on militants in Mali, said a senior U.S. military official briefed on the agreement.
The U.S. is already running a limited surveillance operation from Niger's airspace, but could expand it later. The base would support both drone surveillance and possible drone strikes or special operations raids, but those would only be carried out at the direction of the White House with the knowledge of the host country, the official said.