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Russian military personnel enter Niger airbase where some U.S. troops remain

5/2: CBS Morning News
5/2: CBS Morning News 20:14

Russian military personnel have entered an airbase in Niger where some U.S. troops are located, two U.S. officials confirmed to CBS News on Thursday. Russians have been in Niger for several weeks as the U.S. negotiates the withdrawal of its troops from two airbases in the country, one of the officials said. 

A second official described the Russians as trainers and said they were located about two miles from where a small number of U.S. troops are based at Niamey's international airport. Most of the roughly 1,000 U.S. troops still in Niger are at a second airbase, about 500 miles away from the capital, in the city of Agadez.

Asked Friday about the Russian deployment, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that Russia was, "developing ties with various African countries in all areas, including in the military one," adding that those nations, "are interested in it, we are also interested in it, and we will continue to develop our relations with African states."

Before a coup in Niger in July 2023 led to the demand that American troops leave the country, the U.S. had used the two bases to fly drones on counterterrorism missions across the vast Sahel region of north Africa, where political unrest and weak central governments have allowed terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and affiliates of ISIS, to gain footholds. 

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The Russian presence on the base comes amid soaring tension between Washington and Moscow over U.S. support for Ukraine, more than two years into Russia's ongoing invasion of the neighboring country.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, speaking Thursday in Hawaii, played down the risks of U.S. and Russian forces being in relatively close proximity at the sprawling base in Niger, however, telling reporters "the Russians are in a separate compound and don't have access to U.S. forces or access to our equipment." 

"I'm always focused on the safety and protection of our troops," Austin said, "but right now, I don't see a significant issue here in terms of our force protection."

In October, Washington officially designated the military takeover a coup, triggering U.S. laws that restrict the provision of military support and aid to Niger. Since then, diplomatic efforts to restore ties with Niger have been unsuccessful.

The region around Niger has experienced six successful coups over the last three years alone. Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso's ruling juntas have all issued statements of support for Niger's new military leaders. Burkina Faso and Mali were the first to turn to the Russian mercenary firm previously known as the Wagner Group for military training and support.

A few months after Niger's coup, its ruling junta also asked French forces to leave and turned to Wagner, now controlled by the Russian state, for security assistance.

Protesters hold up a sign demanding that U.S. troops leave Niger immediately during a demonstration in Niamey, Niger, April 13, 2024. AFP via Getty

Until recently, Washington considered Niger a key partner and ally in a region swept by coups in recent years, investing millions of dollars in the Agadez base, which has been critical to U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Sahel. The U.S. also has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in training Niger's military since it began operations there in 2013.

The Pentagon also has said the U.S. will relocate most of the approximately 100 troops it has deployed in neighboring Chad for now. Chad is also considering whether to continue its security agreement with the U.S.

Reporting contributed by Eleanor Watson

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