EU security experts in Niger amid Sahel fears

NIAMEY Sat Jun 9, 2012 3:46pm EDT

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NIAMEY (Reuters) - An advance party of European military and civilian security advisors has arrived in northern Niger in a mission brought forward due to deepening fears over the threat of terrorism from neighboring Mali, Nigerien officials said.

No details were given by the European Union, but the EU has previously said it had ear-marked 150 million euros ($187 million) to improve security across the Sahel, where the rebel take-over of Mali's north has bolstered al Qaeda's North Africa wing.

Niger is a major uranium exporter and has been the most vocal of countries in the region calling for a swift military intervention to tackle the security threat.

"We have more than 30 European military and civilian experts who are looking at the security situation in the north," a senior Nigerien military officer told Reuters, asking not to be named.

The official said the experts had deployed to Niger's Agadez region as part of the EU's plans to provide counter-terrorism training and advice to Nigerien forces.

"There is no question of a foreign base being set up."

Mali's March 22 coup precipitated the fall of the north to a mix of secular and Islamists rebels, who now control a desert region the size of France at the heart of the Sahara.

The rebel takeover has emboldened al Qaeda's North Africa wing, AQIM, as well as other foreign militants, including Nigerian militants from Boko Haram.

But the coup has also meant donors, led by the United States and the EU, have suspended non-humanitarian assistance in Mali, which was at the heart of efforts to tackle the influence of fighters linked to al Qaeda and organized crime.

Western nations see Niger, Mauritania and Algeria as key players in improving regional security.

West Africa's regional bloc ECOWAS says a force is on standby but it is expected to seek a United Nations mandate at the Security Council before moving.

Karidio Mahamadou, Niger's defense minister, said there were instructors in the country as part of bi-lateral agreements with the U.S., France and Algeria but any presence was temporary.

A defense ministry official, who also asked not to be named, said that the EU mission would be in place by the end of July, several months ahead of schedule.

"Initially, the mission had been planned for September but because of the deteriorating security situation in the region, preparations were accelerated," he said.

Earlier this week, Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou that Afghan and Pakistani jihadis were training recruits for Islamist groups in northern Mali.

($1 = 0.8021 euros)

(Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Jon Hemming)

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