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WASHINGTON - The US military is planning to set up a drone base in northwestern Africa in order to combat the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups which pose a growing menace to the region, local media said Tuesday.
This is an indication that Africa has become a priority for the US counterterrorism efforts, the New York Times reported in a front-page news report.
The drone base is most likely to be established in Niger which sits east to Mali, where French troops are assisting government forces in fighting Al Qaeda-backed extremist groups controlling the north, the report said.
But the US Africa Command is also discussing options for locating the base in other countries of the region, such as Burkina Faso, it added.
Pentagon officials were quoted as saying that they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they did not rule out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.
Currently, the US military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base in Djibouti. A new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including one in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes.
If the drone base is set up, the US military will provide immediate surveillance assistance to the French troops fighting in Mali, the report said.
The US military's drone base plan in Africa still needs approval from the Pentagon and eventually from the White House, as well as the government of Niger, which has just reached a status- of-forces agreement with the US Monday to clear the way for greater US military involvement in the country.
But the plan could face resistance from some in the White House who are wary of committing any additional US forces to a fight against a poorly understood web of extremist groups in North Africa, according to the news report.