Austin confirms Russians deployed to airbase housing US military in Niger

Officials says Russians do not have access to US forces at Airbase 101 as Moscow’s troops deployed to a separate hanger.

FILE - A U.S. and Niger flag are raised side by side at the base camp for air forces and other personnel supporting the construction of Niger Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger, April 16, 2018. The United States is attempting to create a new military agreement with Niger that would allow it to remain in the country, weeks after the junta said its presence was no longer justified, two Western officials told The Associated Press Friday April 19, 2024. (AP Photo/Carley Petesch, File)
The US and Niger flags side by side at a base camp for air force and other personnel supporting the construction of Airbase 201 in Agadez, Niger, in 2018 [File: Carley Petesch/AP Photo]

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has confirmed that Russian military personnel have entered an airbase in Niger that hosts US forces, following a recent decision by Niger’s military rulers to expel US troops from the country.

News of the Russian deployment to the airbase follows after Niger’s military rulers told Washington in March that it must withdraw the nearly 1,000 US military personnel stationed in the country.

Prior to a military coup in July last year, Niger had been a key partner in the US’s fight against the ISIL (ISIS) group and al-Qaeda affiliates in the Sahel region of Africa, which is currently experiencing a surge in deadly violence.

Reuters news agency cited a senior US defence official on Thursday, who, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that Russian troops were present but not mingling with US forces at Airbase 101, located next to Diori Hamani International Airport in Niger’s capital Niamey.

Russia’s deployment of military personnel to the base puts US and Moscow forces in close proximity at a time when relations between both countries are increasingly tense amid Washington’s support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion of its neighbour.

“[The situation] is not great but, in the short-term, manageable,” the US official said.

Asked about the airbase report by a journalist, Defense Secretary Austin said on Friday that he saw no significant issue as the Russian troops did not have access to US personnel or equipment.

“Airbase 101 where our forces [are], is a Nigerien air force base that is co-located with an international airport in the capital city. The Russians are in a separate compound and don’t have access to US forces or access to our equipment,” Austin told a news conference in Honolulu.

“I’m always focused on the safety and protection of our troops, [and it is] something that we’ll continue to watch,” he said.

“But right now, I don’t see a significant issue here in terms of our force protection,” he added.


Western forces no longer welcome

The US and its allies have been forced to move troops out of a number of African countries following coups that have brought to power military leaders eager to distance themselves from Western governments.

In addition to the impending departure from Niger, US forces have also left Chad in recent days, while the French military has been kicked out of Mali and Burkina Faso. At the same time, Russia is seeking to strengthen relations with African nations, pitching Moscow as a friendly country with no colonial baggage in the continent.

Mali, for example, has in recent years become one of Russia’s closest African allies, with the Wagner Group mercenary force deploying there to fight rebel groups.

After the coup last year, the US military moved some of its forces in Niger from Airbase 101 to Airbase 201 in the city of Agadez. It was not immediately clear what US military equipment remained at Airbase 101.

Washington built Airbase 201 in central Niger at a cost of more than $100m. Since 2018, it has been used to target ISIL and al-Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, known as JNIM, with armed drones.

Niger’s call for the removal of US troops came after a meeting in Niamey in mid-March, when senior US officials raised concerns including the expected arrival of Russian forces and reports of Iran seeking raw materials in the country, including uranium.

While the US message to Nigerien officials was not an ultimatum, the US official said told Reuters that it was made clear that US forces could not be on a base with Russian forces.

“They did not take that well,” the official said.

A two-star US general has been sent to Niger to try and arrange a professional and responsible withdrawal.

While no decisions have been taken on the future of US troops in Niger, the official said the plan was for them to return to US Africa Command’s home bases, located in Germany.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters