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US military resumes drone flights and manned counterterrorism missions out of Niger bases

Nigerien national guardsmen sit outside the customs offices in Niamey, Niger, Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. Around 300 trucks of food and other materials crossed into Niger from Burkina Faso with many arriving in the capital, Niamey Sunday, according to a regional custom's official. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. (AP) — The U.S. military has resumed flying drones and manned aircraft out of air bases in the Niger more than a month after a coup temporarily halted all those activities there, the head of U.S. Air Forces for Europe and Africa said Wednesday.

Since the July coup, the 1,100 U.S. forces deployed in the country have been confined inside their military bases. Last week the Pentagon said some military personnel and assets had been moved from the air base near Niamey, which is the capital of Niger, to another in Agadez. Niamey is about 920 kilometers away from Agadez.

In response to a question from the Associated Press on how the U.S. was able to continue its counterterrorism missions without those flights, Gen. James Hecker, the top Air Force commander for Europe and Africa, said in recent weeks some of those intelligence and surveillance missions have been able to resume due to U.S. negotiations with the junta.

"For a while we weren’t doing any missions on the bases, they pretty much closed down the airfields," Hecker said. "Through the diplomatic process, we are now doing, I wouldn’t say 100% of the missions that we were doing before, but we’re doing a large amount of missions that we’re doing before.”

In a statement, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder confirmed that the U.S. was flying missions again but said they were confined to protecting U.S. forces.

Hecker, who spoke to reporters at the annual Air and Space Forces Association convention at National Harbor, Maryland, said the U.S. is flying both manned and unmanned missions and those flights resumed “within the last couple of weeks.”

The significant distance between the two bases also means that the while flights are going out, some missions are “not getting as much data, because you’re not overhead for as long" because of the amount of fuel it takes to get out and back, he said.

The U.S. has made Niger it's main regional outpost for wide-ranging patrols by armed drones and other counterterror operations against Islamic extremist movements that over the years have seized territory, massacred civilians and battled foreign armies. The bases are a critical part of America's overall counterterrorism efforts in West Africa.

The U.S. has also invested years and hundreds of millions of dollars in training Nigerian forces.

In 2018, fighters loyal to the Islamic State group ambushed and killed four American service members, four Nigeriens and an interpreter.

West Africa recorded over 1,800 extremist attacks in the first six months of this year, which killed nearly 4,600 people, according to ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States.

The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram operates in neighboring Nigeria and Chad. Along Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin pose greater threats.