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U.S. troops to withdraw from Niger

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More than 1,000 U.S. military personnel will leave Niger in the coming months, Biden administration officials said on Friday, upending U.S. counterterrorism and security policies in Africa’s volatile Sahel region.

In the second of two meetings in Washington this week, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt M. Campbell told Niger’s Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zaina that the United States disagreed with the country’s turning to Russia for help for its security, Nor does it agree to a possible uranium deal with Iran. Niger’s military junta has failed to chart a path to a return to democracy, according to a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations.

The decision comes as no surprise. Niger said last month it would withdraw China and the United States reached a military cooperation agreement after a series of controversial meetings with senior U.S. diplomatic and military delegations in the Niger capital Niamey.

The move fits a pattern in which countries in the arid Sahel region south of the Sahara have recently severed ties with Western countries. They are increasingly cooperating with Russia.

U.S. diplomats have spent the past few weeks seeking to salvage a revised military cooperation agreement with Niger’s junta, but ultimately failed to reach a compromise, U.S. officials said.

Negotiations broke down amid growing dissatisfaction with the U.S. presence in Niger. thousands of protesters On Saturday, Russia called for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces personnel in the capital, just days after Russia delivered its own military equipment and instructors to the country’s military.

Niger has refused to establish military ties with the United States after France withdrew its troops. France, a former colonial power, has led foreign counterterrorism operations against jihadist groups in West Africa over the past decade but has recently been viewed as a pariah in the region. .

U.S. officials said on Friday they would begin discussions with Niger in the coming days on plans for an “orderly and responsible withdrawal” of U.S. troops, a process that will take months to complete.

Many Americans stationed in Niger are stationed in United States Air Force Base 201It is a six-year-old, $110 million installation located in the country’s northern desert. But the military there has been inactive since last July, when a military coup ousted President Mohamed Bazoum and installed a military junta, with most MQ-9 Reaper drones grounded except for those conducting surveillance missions to protect U.S. forces. .

It is unclear what future U.S. access will have to the base, and whether Russian advisers or even the Russian air force might gain access if Niger’s ties with the Kremlin deepen.

Because of the coup, the United States had to Suspend security operations and development assistance to Niger. Mr. Bazoum is still under arrest eight months after his deportation. Still, the United States wants to maintain its partnership with the country.

But the sudden arrival of 100 Russian instructors and an air defense system in Niger last week made the chances of cooperation in the short term even slimmer. The Russian personnel are part of the Afrika Korps, a new paramilitary organization designed to replace the Wagner Group, the military company whose mercenaries were under the leadership of Yevgeny V, according to state-owned news agency RIA Novosti. and operations across Africa. Prigozhin died in a plane crash last year.

Demonstrators in Niamey on Saturday waved Russian flags as well as those of Burkina Faso and Mali, two neighboring countries whose military-led governments have also called on Russia for aid in the fight against militants linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Rebels.

U.S. officials say they have been trying for months to prevent a formal breakdown in relations with Niger’s military junta.

The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Katherine Fitzgibbon, is one of Washington’s top experts on Africa and has held regular discussions with the junta since she officially took office earlier this year.

Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee said during a visit to Niger in December that the United States intended to resume security and development cooperation with Niger, even as she called for a swift transition to civilian rule and Mr. Niger’s release. Bazoum.

But the Pentagon has been preparing for the worst-case scenario if negotiations fail. The U.S. Department of Defense has been discussing establishing new drone bases with several West African coastal countries as a backup to its base in landlocked Niger. Military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said talks were still in the early stages to discuss the operation.

Current and former security and diplomatic officials say Niger’s strategic position and its willingness to cooperate with Washington will be difficult to replace.

J. Peter Pham, the former U.S. special envoy for the Sahel, said in an email that “while ordinary Nigeriens will bear the brunt of the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent loss of political and diplomatic attention, U.S. states and their allies will also bear the brunt of the U.S. withdrawal, at least in the short term.” China has lost strategic military assets that are difficult to replace.”

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