After months of negotiations, the government of Niger has authorized the U.S. military to fly unarmed drones from the mud-walled desert city of Agadez, according to Nigerien and U.S. officials.
This will be the second U.S. surveillance hub in Niger and third in the region.
It advances a little-publicized U.S. strategy to tackle counter-terrorism threats alongside France, the former colonial power in that part of the continent.
In Niamey, Niger’s capital, U.S. and French forces set up neighboring drone hangars last year to conduct reconnaissance flights over Mali, where about 1,200 French soldiers are trying to suppress a revolt from 2012.
It is unclear whether the Pentagon will continue to operate drones from Niamey, about 500 miles southwest of Agadez, though some officials said it was unlikely. About 120 U.S. troops are deployed there at a Nigerien military base adjacent to the international airport.
The third drone base in the region is reportedly in Chad. U.S. surveillance drones have used that base to search for the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram since May 11.
Although officials have not said where those drones have been flying from, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday that having the new unit in Chad, which borders the northeastern tip of Niger, will enable longer surveillance flights.
“Locating this force in Chad allows us to spend more time flying over the search area,” said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Myles B. Caggins III.
The White House approved $10 million in emergency aid on Aug. 11 to help airlift French troops and provide midair refueling for French aircraft deployed to the region. Analysts said the monetary sum was less important than what it symbolized: U.S. endorsement of a new French plan to deploy 3,000 troops across the region.
Updated to correct the title.