WASHINGTON/NIAMEY (Reuters) - The United States is preparing a possible redeployment of its drones in Niger to set up a forward base in the Sahara closer to Islamist militants blamed for attacks across the region, U.S. military and Defense Department officials said.
Washington deployed unarmed surveillance drones in Niger after a French-led military operation last year destroyed an al Qaeda enclave in neighboring northern Mali. Supported by some 120 U.S. military personnel, they operate from a base outside the capital Niamey.
Under the new plan, which is still being assessed by the U.S. military, that base would be relocated to the city of Agadez around 750 km (460 miles) northeast of Niamey.
"Geographically and strategically, Agadez presents an attractive option...given its proximity to the threats in the region," Benjamin Benson, spokesman for the U.S. military's Africa Command, told Reuters.
Bolstered by weapons looted from Libyan government arsenals, Islamist fighters took advantage of a Tuareg uprising and military coup in Mali to seize the country's desert north in 2012.
French troops and their West African regional allies succeeded in driving them back early last year. But al Qaeda-linked groups continue to operate across a loosely governed zone with porous borders straddling Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Libya.
Civilian and military officials in Niger told Reuters on Tuesday that the government had already given its green light to the plan to establish the base in Agadez.
"Niger has given its total consent," a senior Nigerien military officer said. "The goal is to secure our borders against jihadist infiltrations. Libya, for example, is gripped by turmoil and so surveillance must be reinforced there."
Niger said last year it would welcome the deployment of armed U.S. drones after Islamist launched twin attacks on a uranium mine operated by French nuclear energy company Areva at Arlit and a military barracks in Agadez.
The United States has also deployed drones to Niger's neighbor Chad, where they have been used in the search for more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist group Boko Haram in April.
Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and Abdoulaye Massalaki in Niamey; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Mark Heinrich