- By Al-Akhbar, AFP
The US military plans to expand its drone program to northwest Africa to bolster surveillance of Islamic militant groups, the New York Times reported Monday.
A US official who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed the plans to AFP.
The base for the robotic, unmanned aircraft would likely be located in Niger, on the eastern border of Mali, where French forces are currently waging a campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the official said.
Initial plans only call for surveillance flights to monitor militants’ movements and collect information, but they would likely expand to allow for air strikes similar to those that have killed thousands in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia.
Officials told the US daily that all options for the drone program remain on the table, while acknowledging the likelihood of alienating locals who oppose the deadly practice.
A recent study concluded that the US Drone War stirs fear and panic, and drives anti-American sentiments, in affected countries. The aircraft frequently launch air strikes on public gatherings including weddings and funerals, after apparently mistaking them for militant training grounds.
Figures compiled by the Bureau for Investigative Journalism last year found that US drones killed between 2,562 and 3,325 people in Pakistan alone between June 2004 and September 2012. Among them, between 474 and 881 were civilians, including 176 children.
If the plan gets the green light, up to 300 US military service members and contractors could be sent to the base to operate the drone aircraft, according to the New York Times.
But State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland reiterated that there are no plans to commit US troops to any fighting on the ground.
“The US military is not going to be engaged in combat operations in Mali,” she stressed, “and we don’t expect US forces to become directly involved on the ground in combat either.”
The United States and Niger signed a status of forces agreement Monday, which allows US forces to operate in the country, and provides them with a level of diplomatic immunity. The Pentagon secures such agreements for base arrangements or troop deployments.