NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland - The U.S. military has resumed counterterrorism missions in Niger, flying drones and other aircraft out of air bases in the country more than a month after a coup halted those activities, the head of U.S. Air Forces for Europe and Africa said Wednesday.
Since the July coup, the 1,100 U.S. forces deployed in the country have been confined inside their bases. Last week the Pentagon said some military personnel and assets had been moved from the air base near Niamey, the capital, to another in Agadez. The cities are about 920 kilometers apart.
In recent weeks some of those intelligence and surveillance missions have been able to resume through U.S. negotiations with the junta, said General James Hecker, the top Air Force commander for Europe and Africa.
'For a while we weren't doing any missions on the bases. They pretty much closed down the airfields,' Hecker said. 'Through the diplomatic process, we are now doing - I wouldn't say 100% of the missions that we were doing before, but we're doing a large amount of missions that we're doing before.'
Hecker, who spoke to reporters at the annual Air and Space Forces Association convention at National Harbor, Maryland, said the U.S. was flying manned and unmanned missions and that those flights resumed 'within the last couple of weeks.'
The significant distance between the two bases also means that while the flights are going out, some missions are 'not getting as much data, because you're not overhead for as long' because of the amount of fuel it takes to get out and back, he said.
The U.S. has made Niger its main regional outpost for wide-ranging patrols by armed drones and other counterterror operations against Islamic extremist movements that over the years have seized territory, massacred civilians and battled foreign armies. The bases are a critical part of America's overall counterterrorism efforts in West Africa.
The U.S. has also invested years and hundreds of millions of dollars in training Nigerien forces.
In 2018, fighters loyal to the Islamic State group ambushed and killed four American service members, four Nigeriens and an interpreter.
West Africa recorded more than 1,800 extremist attacks in the first six months of this year, which killed nearly 4,600 people, according to ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.
The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram operates in neighboring Nigeria and Chad. Along Niger's borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and al-Qaida affiliate Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin pose greater threats.