U.S. instructors to train African troops for Mali in Niger

NIAMEY Thu May 16, 2013 6:55am EDT

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NIAMEY (Reuters) - U.S. military instructors in Niger will train African forces participating in a U.N.-backed offensive against al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in neighboring Mali, senior military officers said on Thursday.

The United States and several European nations have backed a French-led military intervention which since January 11 has driven militant insurgents out of the towns of northern Mali. Pockets of Islamist resistance remain in Mali's desert north.

The U.S. military did not participate in the ground offensive but aided the operation by transporting troops and providing intelligence information from drones based in Niger.

A senior Niger military officer said up to 30 U.S. military instructors would train African forces between June and August at Ouallam, in the Tillaberi region near the Malian border.

"Some U.S. military instructors will train AFISMA troops on Nigerien soil from June 25 to August 3," the officer, asking not to be identified.

"The training will help strengthen the operational capabilities of the coalition forces against terrorism in northern Mali."

U.S. authorities in Niger were not available to comment.

The United States has deployed about 100 military personnel and drones in Niger.

Niger troops going to relieve the contingent currently stationed in Mali will be the first to receive training.

The U.S. military has run training programs for Niger's army for years under a counter-terrorism program in the Sahel.

Niger is among the West African countries which contributed troops to the regional AFISMA force battling Islamists in Mali alongside a 4,000-strong French contingent.

AFISMA is expected to be folded into a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force of about 12,600 troops known as MINUSMA and will be supported by a rapid reaction unit of 1,000 French troops if needed to combat the Islamist threat in Mali.

International donors meeting in Brussels on Wednesday pledged 3.25 billion euros ($4.18 billion) to help Mali rebuild after the conflict.

The European Union has also provided a 500-strong training team in Mali for an initial period of 15 months.

(Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalatchi; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Andrew Roche)

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