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Niger would welcome armed U.S. drones

| Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, 9:27 p.m.

NIAMEY, Niger — Niger would be open to the deployment of armed U.S. drones to help in its battle against an armed Islamist threat and drug trafficking in the Sahara, Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said on Wednesday.

Washington deployed about 100 military personnel and unarmed surveillance drones in Niger when a French-led military operation in January destroyed an al-Qaida enclave in neighboring northern Mali.

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou's government, concerned not only by the presence of Islamists but also the trafficking of arms, cocaine and cannabis in the north, wants to further reinforce military ties with the country's Western partners.

“Our cooperation is giving good results, but it is not enough. It needs to be reinforced and rethought at every level — both our capacity to collect intelligence and to conduct operations,” Bazoum said.

France has sent Special Forces to Niger to protect uranium mines, operated by its state-controlled nuclear energy company Areva, which are crucial to French electricity supplies. But it does not have armed drones.

Used for protecting American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and killing terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, drones can be remotely piloted from bases in the United States.

Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have increased under President Obama, and the pilotless aerial vehicles have become a key part of the fight against al-Qaida.

Niger has reinforced its border patrols but needs help to take on groups of armed traffickers operating near the border regions with Mali, Algeria and lawless southern Libya.

An EU mission is training security forces to tackle the threat but their efficacy is constrained by a lack of aircraft, vehicles and weapons.

“Drug trafficking is destabilising because the huge amount of money in the hands of these groups means they exceed our army's capacity in terms of weapons,” Bazoum said. Gangs also used their profits to corrupt local authorities and security forces, he said.

Despite the presence in Mali of some 3,000 French troops and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), to which Niger contributes troops, trafficking routes across West Africa remain wide open, from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast, through Algeria and Mali, into Niger and Libya, Bazoum said.

“I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don't see why that shouldn't be possible,” Bazoum said.

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