US forces started deploying armed drones in Niger earlier this year to attack Islamist militants, the US military said.
Niger’s government granted American forces permission last November to arm their drones but neither side previously confirmed their deployment. Before that US drones were only used for surveillance.
The US military presence in Niger expanded in recent years to an 800-strong force that accompanies Nigerien troops on intelligence gathering and other missions, reflecting US concerns about rising militancy in West Africa’s Sahel region.
An ambush by a local Islamic State affiliate in western Niger last October killed four US soldiers. Jihadist groups based in neighbouring Mali struck military and civilian targets as far afield as Ivory Coast.
“In co-ordination with the Government of Niger, US Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger,” a spokesperson for United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) said in an email.
“As a matter of operational security, we do not discuss where strike platforms originate from, nor current or future operations.”
The drones are currently flown out of a base in Niamey while the military completes construction of a $100 million drone base in the central city of Agadez.
The military views drones as a cost-efficient way to counter the militants but critics fear drone strikes will cause civilian casualties and trigger blowback from the local population.