U.S. defense officials say the United States has deployed several Predator drones to the West African country of Niger to fly surveillance missions in support of French troops battling Islamists in neighboring Mali.
The officials quoted in U.S. news reports say the unarmed robotic aircraft are to be based near the Niger capital, Niamey, along with a contingent of about 100 U.S. military personnel.
U.S. President Barack Obama notified Congress Friday that the U.S. force would provide support for intelligence gathering. Obama did not explicitly reveal the drone base in his letter, but military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said troops arriving Wednesday in Niger were largely Air Force personnel there to support drone flights.
The officials said the drones are for reconnaissance only and would not be equipped with missiles.
The United States and Europe have voiced fears that al-Qaida militants and their allies are seeking to expand their influence, turning parts of West Africa into a global security threat.
French forces entered Mali in January to push back militants moving toward the capital, Bamako.
France has since said it plans to begin withdrawing its ground forces and hand over military operations to the Malian army and an African force. France also has urged the United Nations to establish a peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Earlier Friday, Malian authorities said at least five people were killed in an apparent suicide car bombing in northern Mali, near a rebel base. The dead include the two suspected bombers.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility.