A top US military commander says Washington has resumed flying drones and other aircraft out of Niger air bases, more than a month after a coup temporarily halted all those activities in the West African country.
General James Hecker, Air Force commander for Europe and Africa, made the remarks at the annual Air and Space Forces Association convention at National Harbor, Maryland, on Wednesday.
“For a while, we weren’t doing any missions on the bases, they pretty much closed down the airfields,” Hecker said. “Through the diplomatic process, we are now doing, I wouldn’t say 100 percent of the missions that we were doing before, but we’re doing a large amount of missions that we’re doing before.”
He went on to say that the US is flying both manned and unmanned missions in Niger, adding that some of those intelligence and surveillance flights resumed “within the last couple of weeks” due to Washington’s negotiations with the junta.
Pentagon’s chief spokesman General Pat Ryder also confirmed in a statement that the US was flying missions in Niger again but said they were confined to protecting American forces.
As of November 2019, the Americans operate Air Base 201, where about 1,100 soldiers are stationed and which is used for MQ-9 Reapers and manned aircraft.
After the successful July coup, the new authorities banned American drones from flying in Niger’s airspace and US forces deployed in the country have been confined inside their military bases.
Last week, the Pentagon said some military personnel and assets had been moved from the air base near the capital Niamey to another base in Agadez.
The US has made Niger its main regional outpost for wide-ranging patrols by armed drones and other counter-terror operations.
The official reason for the presence of US forces is the alleged fight against extremist rebels, although many analysts argue that the main motive is to control the African country’s massive energy resources as well as use them for the strategic surveillance of West Africa.
The landlocked West African country is rich in Uranium but remains deeply poor.