NIAMEY US military instructors in Niger will train African forces participating in a UN-backed offensive against Al Qaeda-linked militants in neighbouring Mali, senior military officers said on Thursday.
The United States and several European nations have backed a French-led military intervention which since January 11 has driven militants out of the towns of northern Mali. Pockets of Islamist resistance remain in Mali’s desert north.
The US military did not participate in the ground offensive but aided the operation by transporting troops and providing intelligence information from drones based in Niger.
A senior Niger military officer said up to 30 US military instructors would train African forces between June and August at Ouallam, in the Tillaberi region near the Malian border.
“Some US military instructors will train Africa-led International Support mission in Mali (AFISMA)troops on Nigerien soil from June 25 to August 3,” the officer, asking not to be identified. “The training will help strengthen the operational capabilities of the coalition forces against terrorism in northern Mali.” US authorities in Niger were not available to comment. The US has deployed about 100 military personnel and drones in Niger. Niger troops going to relieve the contingent currently stationed in Mali will be the first to receive training.
The US military has run training programmes for Niger’s army for years under a counter-terrorism programme in the Sahel.
Niger is among the West African countries which contributed troops to the regional AFISMA force battling Islamists in Mali alongside a 4,000-strong French contingent.
AFISMA is expected to be folded into a UN-sanctioned peacekeeping force of about 12,600 troops known as MINUSMA and will be supported by a rapid reaction unit of 1,000 French troops if needed to combat the threat in Mali.
International donors meeting in Brussels on Wednesday pledged $4.18 billion to help Mali rebuild after the conflict. The European Union has also provided a 500-strong training team in Mali for an initial period of 15 months.
Separately, France’s first lady Valerie Trierweiler began a tour of Mali on Thursday with a visit to Gao, says a report from Gao.
President Francois Hollande’s partner, on a 48-hour trip as “part of a mission for children and women”, highlighted the role of female soldiers in securing the north for the former French colony as part of Operation Serval.
Wearing a shirt and beige trousers, Trierweiler accompanied her Malian counterpart Mintou Traore at the launch of a support programme for residents who had fled Gao when it was occupied last year by Al Qaeda-linked militants.
“I salute the people of Gao who have begun to return. I would also like to thank the women of Operation Serval,” Trierweiler said at the ceremony, at the city’s airport. She announced that France would donate $644,000 to farmers in the Gao region, stressing “the humanitarian nature of this visit”. The rebels have largely been driven out by the French action, launched on January 11 with the Malian army and other African forces, but they continue to stage suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks, particularly in the Gao region.