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Russian troops enter base housing US forces in Niger after American personnel asked to leave

A US official said Niger's ruling junta has asked some 1,000 American military personnel to leave the country amid differences with Washington over some issues. Niger was a crucial partner of the US in the fight against Islamic terrorism in West Africa till the coup in July last year.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Published on: May 03, 2024 13:14 IST
Niger, US troops, Russia
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) Niger citizens protest against US troop presence in the country.

Washington: A senior US defence official told Reuters that Russian military personnel have entered an air base that is hosting US troops as well, over a week after it was reported that Niger's ruling junta asked 1,000 American forces to withdraw from the country following disagreements with Washington over issues including progress on the country's transition to democratic rule. Niger had been a crucial partner in the US fight against insurgents till a coup last year.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russian forces were not mingling with US troops but were using a separate hangar at Airbase 101, which is next to Diori Hamani International Airport in Niamey, Niger's capital. Nevertheless, the move puts US and Russian troops in close proximity amid intense rivalry between the two countries over the conflict in Ukraine. It also raises questions about the fate of US installations in the country following a withdrawal.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin played down any risk to American troops or the chance that Russian troops might get close to US military hardware. "The Russians are in a separate compound and don't have access to US forces or access to our equipment...I'm always focused on the safety and protection of our troops... But right now, I don't see a significant issue here in terms of our force protection," Austin told a press conference in Honolulu.

Western troops expelled from several African countries

The US and its allies have been forced to move troops out of a number of African countries following coups that brought to power groups eager to distance themselves from Western governments. In addition to the impending departure from Niger, US troops have also left Chad in recent days, while French forces have been kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso.

After the military junta in Niger seized power in July last year and ousted democratically-elected Mohamed Bazoum, the immediate priority was the expulsion of French military personnel which was eventually completed in December. After putting up a defiant face to the military regime in Niger for several weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron finally relented and announced the withdrawal of around 1,500 French troops from the country. Nigeriens are hostile towards France for several reasons, including their failure to combat Islamic terrorism in West Africa.

At the same time, Russia is seeking to strengthen relations with African nations, pitching Moscow as a friendly country with no colonial baggage in the continent. Mali, for example, has in recent years become one of Russia's closest African allies, with the Wagner Group mercenary force deploying there to fight jihadist insurgents. Relations between the US and Russia are "below zero" due to American aid to Ukraine.

 After the coup, the US military moved some of its forces in Niger from Airbase 101 to Airbase 201 in the city of Agadez. Airbase 201 was built in central Niger at a cost of $200 million and has been used to target terror groups like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM).

Where will US troops go?

Washington is concerned about Islamic militants in the Sahel region, who may be able to expand without the presence of US forces and intelligence capabilities. Niger's move to ask for the removal of US troops came after a meeting in Niamey in mid-March, when senior US officials raised concerns including the expected arrival of Russian forces and reports of Iran seeking raw materials in the country, including uranium.

While Washington's message to Nigerien officials was not an ultimatum, it was made clear US forces could not be on a base with Russian forces. "They did not take that well," the official said. Now, a two-star US general has been sent to Niger to try and arrange a professional and responsible withdrawal and the troops may be moved to Germany.

There were a little over 1,000 US troops in Niger as of last year. US military personnel had been training local forces to fight militant groups. Niger's junta previously proposed a three-year timeline for a transition back to civilian rule after the army seized power. Hundreds took to the streets of Niger's capital last week to demand the departure of US troops as authorities shifted towards Russia.

Eight coups in West and Central Africa over four years, including in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, have driven concerns over democratic backsliding in the region. The new authorities in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have ended military deals with one-time Western allies like Washington and Paris, quitting the regional political and economic bloc ECOWAS and fostering closer ties with Russia.

(with inputs from Reuters)

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