October 22, 2014 / 10:33 PM / 5 years ago

Niger buys 'spy plane' to combat Sahel militants

NIAMEY (Reuters) - The government of Niger has purchased a reconnaissance plane as part of its effort to combat Islamist fighters and criminal gangs operating on its vast territory, the West African country’s interior minister said on Wednesday.

Located in the arid Sahel band and with porous borders with Mali, Libya and Nigeria, smugglers and Islamic militants regularly crisscross Niger’s sparsely inhabited territory.

French forces deployed in the country destroyed a convoy transporting weapons from Libya to Mali and captured fighters linked to al Qaeda earlier this month.

“We’ve bought and received shipment of a reconnaissance plane, a spy plane purchased with 7 billion CFA francs ($13.5 million) of our own funds,” said Hassoumi Massaoudou, Niger’s minister of the interior and public security.

Speaking on state-run radio, Masssaoudou declined to give further information of the type of plane or details of the purchase. He said it would be operated by Niger’s intelligence service, the General Direction of Documentation and External Security.

The United States already operates unarmed surveillance drones in Niger, having deployed them after a French-led military operation in 2013 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, though Washington is considering moving the operation to Agadez, 750 km (460 miles) northeast of Niamey.

About 3,000 French troops are now operating out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad - countries straddling the vast Sahel band - with the aim of stamping out Islamist fighters across the region.

Paris is setting up a base in northern Niger as part of its new counter-terrorism operation.

(1 US dollar = 518.6700 CFA franc)

Reporting by Abdoulaye Massalaki; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Bernard Orr

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