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US to withdraw its troops from Niger, source says

Protesters react as a man holds up a sign demanding U.S. Army soldiers leave Niger without negotiation during a demonstration in Niamey, on April 13, 2024. The U.S. will withdraw its troops from Niger, a source familiar with the matter said on Friday. [AFP Photo]

The United States agreed Friday to withdraw its more than 1,000 troops from Niger, officials said, upending its posture in West Africa where the country was home to a major drone base.

The long-expected move effectively marks a new regional gain for Russia, which has ramped up its focus on Africa and backed military regimes in neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso.

Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell accepted the call to remove troops in a meeting in Washington with the prime minister of the junta, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine, US officials told AFP on condition of anonymity.

They agreed that a US delegation would head within days to the capital Niamey to arrange an orderly withdrawal, the officials said. Nigerien state television earlier announced that the US officials would visit next week.

The State Department made no immediate public announcement and officials said no timeline was yet set to withdraw the troops.

Niger was long a linchpin in the US and French strategy to combat jihadists in West Africa. The United States built a base in the desert city of Agadez at the cost of $100 million to fly a fleet of drones.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March 2023 became the highest-ranking American ever to visit Niger, vowing economic support for one of the world's poorest countries and seeking to bolster elected president Mohamed Bazoum, a stalwart Western ally.

But the military four months later sacked Bazoum and quickly kicked out troops from former colonial power France.

Unlike its anger toward France, the junta initially sounded an openness to maintaining its longtime defense relationship with the United States.

President Joe Biden's administration, however, has refused to mute concerns, insisting on the return of civilian rule and the release of Bazoum.

Russian military instructors arrived in Niger this month with an air defense system and other equipment, state media said, after talks between military ruler General Abdourahamane Tiani and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Nigerien message becomes clear

The Nigerien military had announced last month in a statement on state television that it was breaking off a defense agreement with the United States with immediate effect.

But diplomats said the Nigerien leadership had sent mixed messages and the United States initially said it was awaiting confirmation.

The United States puts a high priority on troops' safety, and concerns rose last week when thousands rallied outside the National Assembly headquarters chanting for US troops to leave.

Despite maintaining dialogue with the junta, the United States has for months been preparing for the likelihood it will need to exit Niger.

General James Hecker, the US Air Force commander for both Europe and Africa, said late last year that the United States was in discussions for "several locations" elsewhere in West Africa to station drones.

While not publicly asking to station drones, the United States has pursued close cooperation with coastal democracies including Benin, Ghana and Ivory Coast.

Western governments feared that the remote Sahel will offer a new hub for Islamist militants after jihadists overran much of Mali in 2012 as part of a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs.

With Niger seen as comparatively stable, the United States based its drones in Agadez, building the site known as Air Base 101.

The United States resumed drone operations after the July coup in Niger but one of its main functions soon became surveillance for the sake of protecting the US troops based there.

With support from both parties, the United States in recent years has been retrenching its once sprawling military network set up as part of the "war on terror" following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Representative Matt Gaetz, a hard-right Republican known for his brash statements, wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Niger was an "extraordinary Biden foreign policy failure" and urged the safe withdrawal of troops.

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