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600 US troops remain in Niger as withdrawal continues

FILE - U.S. and Nigerien flags are raised at Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, April 16, 2018. Air Base 201 is one of two bases U.S. troops have used while stationed in Niger.
FILE - U.S. and Nigerien flags are raised at Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, April 16, 2018. Air Base 201 is one of two bases U.S. troops have used while stationed in Niger.

About 600 U.S. military personnel remain in Niger, as American troops continue to withdraw from the country before a mid-September deadline, according to a senior U.S. defense official.

"We are on track to be done before the 15th of September," the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues. However, the official cautioned that the rainy season could potentially slow withdrawal efforts.

Last month, U.S. and Nigerien leaders agreed to a phased withdrawal of American forces from Niger after being in the country for more than a decade.

At that time, there were about 900 U.S. military personnel in Niger, including active duty, civilians and contractors, according to two U.S. officials, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity ahead of the withdrawal agreement.

The withdrawal agreement between the U.S. and Niger confirmed protections and immunities for U.S. personnel and approved diplomatic clearances for withdrawal flights "to ensure smooth entries and exits."

American forces were deployed in Niger to help local militaries combat Islamist terrorists in the Sahel.

The United States has used two military bases in the country — Air Base 101 in Niamey and Air Base 201 in Agadez — to monitor various terror groups. Most U.S. forces in Niger are currently based in the latter, which cost the U.S. $110 million to build, and began drone operations in 2019.

Niger's natural resources have increased its importance to global powers, and its location had provided the U.S. with the ability to conduct counterterror operations throughout much of West Africa.

Countries in the region, including Niger, Mali, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, have seen an expansive rise in extremist movements.

According to the Global Terrorism Index, an annual report covering terrorist incidents worldwide, more than half of the deaths caused by terrorism last year were in the Sahel.

Niger's neighbor, Burkina Faso, suffered the most, with 1,907 fatalities from terrorism in 2023.

Unless the U.S. can find another base to use in West Africa, counterterror drones will likely have to spend most of their fuel supply flying thousands of kilometers from U.S. bases in Italy or Djibouti, severely limiting their time over the targets and their ability to gather intelligence.

"That's a significant policy matter that the U.S. is grappling with right now," the senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday.

Coup forced withdrawal

Tensions between the U.S. and Niger began in 2023 when Niger's military junta removed the democratically elected president from power.

After months of delay, the Biden administration formally declared in October 2023 that the military takeover in Niger was a coup, a determination that prevented Niger from receiving a significant amount of U.S. military and foreign assistance.

In March, after tense meetings between U.S. representatives and Niger's governing military council, the junta called the U.S. military presence illegal and announced it was ending an agreement that allowed American forces to be based in the country.

During that meeting, the U.S. and Niger fundamentally disagreed about Niger's desire to supply Iran with uranium and work more closely with Russian military forces.