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U.S. agrees to withdraw American troops from Niger

NAPLES, Italy — The United States informed the government of Niger on Friday that it was granting its request to withdraw U.S. troops from the West African country, three U.S. officials said, a move that the Biden administration had resisted and which will transform Washington’s anti-terrorism position. In the region.

The deal will mean the end of a presence of more than 1,000 U.S. troops and call into question the status of a $110 million U.S. air base that is only six years old. It’s the culmination of last year’s military coup that toppled the country’s democratically elected government and installed a junta that declared the U.S. military presence there “illegal.”

“The prime minister asked us to withdraw American troops, and we agreed to do so,” a senior State Department official told the Washington Post in an interview. This official, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive situation.

The decision was sealed during a meeting Friday between Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Niger Prime Minister Ali Lamine Zeine.

“We agreed to begin discussions within a few days on how to develop a plan” for troop withdrawal, the senior State Department official said. “They agreed that we would do it in an orderly and responsible manner. And we’ll probably have to send people to Niamey to sit down and sort it out. And this will of course be a project of the Ministry of Defense. »

A Pentagon spokesperson did not immediately provide comment.

The United States has suspended security cooperation with Niger, limiting its activities, including unarmed drone flights. But U.S. service members remained in the country, unable to fulfill their responsibilities and feeling left in the dark by U.S. embassy leaders as negotiations continued, according to a recent whistleblower complaint.

The Sahel region, which includes neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, has become a global hotspot for Islamist extremism in recent years, and Niger saw such attacks increase dramatically after the coup. For U.S. officials who viewed the base as an important asset in the fight against terrorism, the withdrawal agreement represents a significant setback. “I think it’s undeniable that this was a platform in a unique part of African geography,” the State Department official said.

For years, the Pentagon has deployed a mix of mostly Air Force and Army personnel to Niger to support a mission to examine militant groups in the region. Until last year’s coup, the agreement included anti-terrorism drone flights and the collaboration of American and Nigerien troops on some patrols.

Niger’s expulsion notice last month followed tense meetings with senior State Department and Pentagon officials, whom Niger’s leaders accused of trying to impose on the West African country. to have no relationship with Iran, Russia or other American adversaries.

Efforts by senior U.S. officials to persuade Niger to return to the democratic path so that U.S. aid can resume have made little progress.

Last week, at least 100 Russian military instructors arrived in Niamey, marking an escalation in security relations between Niger and Moscow that analysts say could make it difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to pursue its own security cooperation. According to reports on Niger state television, Russian instructors are providing training and equipment, including an air defense system, to Niger.

In discussions with U.S. officials, the junta claimed that once Russian instructors provide training on the equipment, they will leave. “They maintain … that they are not interested in a military presence from Russia or other countries,” said the State Department official, who admitted that it was impossible to say whether this would remain true in the long term. “I can’t predict where this will lead.”

Last weekend, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Niamey in a largely peaceful protest, chanting and holding signs calling for U.S. troops to leave.

Although the exit agreement represents a significant setback for U.S. officials, the senior State Department official offered hope that relations with Niger could rebound in areas outside of military cooperation. “The Prime Minister has repeatedly sought to emphasize that he values ​​the historic partnership with the United States and seeks to maintain and deepen our partnership in other sectors,” the official said.

Before Niger sought to oust the U.S. military, it forced the withdrawal of French troops who had carried out counterterrorism operations against extremist groups in the region over the past decade but had become an unpopular postcolonial power. American officials say Washington will not leave Niger under the same conditions as Paris.

“They don’t want to treat us like the French, and they don’t want to blow up relations like they did with the French,” the State Department official said.

But U.S. officials have deep reservations about the junta, which they say has paid lip service when asked about its progress on political transition and the reasons for which it took no specific steps other than a vague commitment to hold elections following the ouster of Niger’s elected leaders. . Washington is also tired of Niger’s drift towards Moscow in terms of security.

Dan Lamothe in Washington and Rachel Chason in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.

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