PENTAGON - The United States and Niger have reached an agreement permitting armed American military drones for use against jihadist terror groups in the African nation, a U.S. official told VOA.
The agreement, finalized this week, is a major expansion of U.S. military’s efforts to counter terrorism in Africa. It is unclear whether the drones will be used to carry out targeted strikes or solely as a defensive measure.
Until now, the U.S. has only been conducting airstrikes against terrorists on the continent operating inside Libya and Somalia. Officials say that arming drones based in Niger would expand the military’s ability to go after extremists in West Africa, where Nigeria-based Boko Haram, Algeria-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and Islamic State fighters operate.
Pentagon spokeswoman Army Major Audricia Harris would not comment on the new permissions.
"The government of Niger and the U.S. stand firm in working together to prevent terrorist organizations from using the region as a safe haven. For operational security reasons, I will not comment on specific military authorities," Harris told VOA.
The Pentagon has been trying to get the permission from the Nigerien government to arm drones long before a militant attack near the village of Tongo Tongo on October 4 killed four American soldiers, four Nigerien soldiers and a Nigerien interpreter.
A formal investigation into the deadly ambush in Niger is not expected to be completed until January, according to the U.S. military.
The military’s investigation team, led by Army Major Gen. Roger Cloutier, will travel to the U.S., Africa and Europe to collect information needed to determine what happened during the October 4 attack.
A group of 12 members of a U.S. Special Operations Task Force accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission from the capital, Niamey, to an area near Tongo Tongo.
Members of the team had just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, U.S. officials told VOA.