By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Pentagon is repositioning some troops and equipment within Niger and will withdraw a small number of non-essential personnel “out of an abundance of caution,” U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday, the first major American military movement in Niger since a coup in July.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, declined to say how many personnel would be departing and how many were repositioning within Niger from Air Base 101 in Niamey, the capital, to Air Base 201 in the city of Agadez.
Before this movement, there were 1,100 troops in the West African country.
“This consolidation represents prudent military planning to safeguard U.S. assets while continuing to address the threat of violent extremism in the region,” one of the officials said.
“This does not change our overall force posture in Niger, and we continue to review all options as we assess a way forward,” the official added.
“The movement of U.S. assets has been coordinated with and approved by the appropriate authorities.”
The officials declined to give more details on the reason for the repositioning. It is generally easier to evacuate people from a single location, though there is no evidence that is imminent.
Over the past decade, U.S. troops have trained Niger’s forces in counter-terrorism and conducted drone missions against Islamic State and an al Qaeda affiliate in the region.
After the coup, the United States paused certain foreign assistance programs for Niger and military training has been on hold. Troops have largely been confined to the bases.
The administration of President Joe Biden has not formally labeled the military takeover in Niger a coup, a designation that would limit what security assistance Washington can provide the country.
“The leaders of this attempted coup are putting Niger’s security at risk, creating a potential vacuum that terrorist groups or other malign groups may exploit,” the official said.
The United States has been pressing for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis that erupted on July 26 when Niger military officers seized power, deposed President Mohamed Bazoum and placed him under house arrest.
The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, only arrived in the capital, Niamey, last month.
The U.S. drone base known as Air Base 201 was built near Agadez in central Niger at a cost of more than $100 million. Since 2018, it has been used to target Islamic State and al Qaeda affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), in the Sahel.
It has grown in importance due to a lack of Western security partners in the region.
Military juntas have come to power through coups in Mali and Burkina Faso – both neighbors of Niger – in recent years. More than 2,000 French troops left Mali last year and a 13,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force is due to shut down by the end of the year after the junta abruptly asked it to leave.
France, Niger’s former colonial power, also has troops in the country. But so far, Paris has rejected calls by the coup leaders to withdraw their 1,500 troops.
(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien)