WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama sent 40 additional soldiers to Niger to help with intelligence efforts as French and African troops battle an Islamist insurgency in neighboring Mali, the White House said in a letter to Congress Friday.
The US troops join another 60 or so already in the West African country, and are tasked with providing "support for intelligence collection and will also facilitate intelligence sharing with French forces conducting operations in Mali, and with other partners in the region," the president said.
The deployment was completed on Wednesday, according to the letter, which informs Congress, per laws that require lawmakers to be kept aware of such deployments.
A US official said last month that the Pentagon was planning to station drones in the region - most likely in Niger - to bolster surveillance of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies, a move Niger had welcomed.
Washington has expressed fears that AQIM, one of the groups that seized control of northern Mali 10 months ago, was expanding its reach in the region and turning into a global security threat.
France launched a military operation in its former colony on January and has already recaptured the north's main cities. It hopes to hand over to a multinational African force which has yet to fully deploy.
AQIM fighters have been crossing northern Mali's desert borders with Mauritania, Algeria and Niger with ease to run what is believed to be a lucrative drug and migrant smuggling operation to Europe.
They are well-trained, have abundant weaponry and hold several Western hostages but are heavily reliant on fuel for their movements in the vast Sahelian expanse.
Obama's administration has provided transport planes to help ferry French weapons and troops and offered to share intelligence with Paris from surveillance aircraft, including reportedly unmanned Global Hawk spy planes.