Niger has called on the United States to use armed drones against extremist militants operating on the African country’s border with neighboring Mali.
Nigerien Defense Minister Kalla Mountari said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday that his country was open to allowing US drone strikes against terror outfits, nearly one month after a number of forces from a joint US-Nigerien patrol were killed in a militant ambush north of the capital, Niamey, and near Mali’s border.
“I asked them (the Americans) some weeks ago to arm them (the drones) and use them as needed,” Mountari said.
When asked if Washington had accepted the request, he said, “Our enemies will find out.”
Meanwhile, an anonymous US official welcomed the Nigerien defense minister’s comments, saying armed drones would be helpful in protecting US troops and potentially targeting militants. But he said he was unaware of any formal agreement having been reached between Niamey and Washington.
In the October 5 ambush, four US Special Forces troops along with five Nigerien soldiers were killed after coming under attack by the suspected members of the so-called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The US soldiers were reportedly providing “training and security assistance” to the Nigerien Armed Forces to fight against violent extremists in the country.
The US conducts controversial drone strikes in other parts of the world, including in Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The drone attacks, often described by the US as “targeted” strikes, anger local populations, who say civilians are often killed in the attacks.
During a protest rally earlier this week, dozens of demonstrators chanted slogans against the presence of foreign troops in Niger.
The country is part of an African counter-terrorism task force known as the G5 Sahel, which also comprises troops from Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Mauritania.
Washington recently announced that the American military was shifting its counter-terrorism strategy in Africa and would expand military operations in the continent.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis told lawmakers in Congress that the Pentagon would expand the ability to use lethal force against suspected terrorists in Africa and place decision-making authority in the hands of US commanders on the field.