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Russians sent to Niger air base occupied by US troops

Screenshot, Coup supporters have taken to the streets with anti-American messages

Russian troops have been deployed to an air base in Niger where US troops are located, senior US officials say.

The move is seen as adding pressure on the United States as it negotiates the withdrawal of its forces from the country following an expulsion order from its military junta.

The United States has been operating two drone bases in Niger, aiming to counter Islamic insurgents in West Africa.

Washington has denounced last year’s coup. In turn, junta leaders have turned to Russia for help.

Niger is located in the African Sahel region, considered the new global epicenter of the Islamic State group.

The United States has relied on Niger as its main base to monitor regional jihadist activity.

The Russians deployed at Air Base 101 at Niger’s international airport in the capital Niamey are said to be military trainers.

They are said to occupy a wing near a contingent of American troops. According to the Reuters news agency, Nigerien officials told the United States that around 60 Russian soldiers were in the country.

Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated sharply since President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, with the United States leading Western efforts to supply weapons to the Ukrainians.

However, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin downplayed any risk to US troops.

“The Russians are in a separate compound and do not have access to US forces or our equipment,” Austin told reporters in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“I’m always focused on the safety and security of our troops… But at this time, I don’t see a significant problem here in terms of protecting our forces,” the defense secretary added.

Most U.S. troops in Niger are said to be at a drone base in the central city of Agadez, about 750 kilometers (460 miles) northeast of Niamey.

It is unclear how many U.S. troops remain at Air Base 101.

In March, Niger ordered all US troops to leave the country. Military spokesman Colonel Amadou Abdramane accused the United States of raising objections about Niger’s chosen allies.

Paul Melly, a West Africa analyst at the Chatham House think tank, says he sees no prospect of confrontation between US and Russian troops.

Melly told the BBC that the Americans had tried hard to remain in Niger, but that the country’s military leaders had rejected their attempts to tie their security assistance to a timetable for restoring civilian rule.

“For the junta, the appeal of the Russians is that they don’t make demands on governance and democratic rules,” Melly said.

He added that there was no evidence that the Russians had been urging Niger – or Mali and Burkina Faso – to expel Western forces, but they clearly took advantage of the situation. And it is still unclear, he said, what contribution the Russians would make to Niger’s security.

The head of the US Africa Command told the BBC that the US is willing to remain engaged with Niger, as well as Chad.

General Michael Langley said violent extremist organizations were the biggest threat to Africa’s stability.

On Wednesday, dozens of troops withdrew from Chad, after the country’s military leaders expressed concern about their presence ahead of the May 6 elections.

Several other military-led countries in the Sahel region have also recently strengthened ties with Russia and cut them with France, the former colonial power, as they try to fight an Islamist insurgency in the region.

General Langley said the United States’ “ultimate goal” was to continue a dialogue with those countries that have been taken over by the junta to put the junta “on a road map back to democracy.”

Last year, Niger and Burkina Faso announced they would follow Mali in withdrawing from the G5 international force created to fight Islamists in the region.

Instead, the three military-ruled countries have created their own grouping: the Alliance of Sahel States.

video subtitles, General Michael Langley: ‘African countries can choose who to partner with’