US deploys troops to Niger

The US military has deployed about 100 troops in Niger to help coordinate intelligence sharing with the French, whose forces are currently fighting to seize Islamist-controlled territory in Mali, President Obama announced Friday.

The US forces are armed with “weapons for the purpose of providing their own force protection and security,” Obama said in a letter to Congress, adding that Niger officials consented to their deployment. The president said the troops will operate out of Niger to help gather intelligence information about the conflict in Mali, but did not elaborate on any specific plans that will be assigned to them.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after the Nigerian Defense Ministry revealed their approval to host an airbase for unarmed American spy drones, which could be used in Mali to monitor Islamists.

“This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for [the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (IRS) program],” an American military official told the New York Times.

Predator drones would be able to gather detailed information on the whereabouts and actions of militants in Mali, as well as monitor the flow of weapons and fighters from Libya.

While the president did not mention any plans regarding the airbase, his announcement regarding the latest deployment is the latest in a number of US moves to help the French. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January proclaimed that the US would not get directly involved in the Mali conflict, but would provide assistance in forms of transportation and intelligence-gathering assistance.

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