By Jamie Crawford and Chris Lawrence
The United States has signed a deal with the central African nation of Niger to host American troops and surveillance drones to keep tabs on Islamic militants in the region, officials from those countries said Tuesday.
Niger is next door to Mali, where France joined the fight against Islamic rebels earlier this month
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the role of U.S. troops in Niger "has not yet been defined" - but Niger's ambassador to the United States, Maman Sidikou, told CNN that his government has agreed to let U.S. drones operate from its territory.
Sidikou says his understanding of the agreement is the drones will be unarmed and used for surveillance to monitor extremist movements. He refused to discuss where in the country the drones would be based or when they will be operational.
Niger lies to the east of Mali, where French troops and warplanes are fighting alongside government troops to push back Islamist fighters who seized much of the former French colony in 2012.
The rebels took advantage of the chaos that followed a revolt by Touareg separatists and a military coup, and banned music, smoking, drinking and watching televised sports in the territories under their control.
Washington is backing its NATO ally by sharing intelligence, flying French troops to neighboring countries and refueling French jets.
Mali is the home of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the North African offshoot of the terrorist movement. The group has been connected to the recent assault on the natural gas facility in Algiers and the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Little said the group does not pose a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, but that could change.
"I'm unaware of any specific or credible information at this time that points to an AQIM threat against the homeland, but, again, I'm not ruling it out," he said. "We take al Qaeda, wherever they are, very seriously. We are not going to rest on our laurels until we find that that kind of specific and credible information."
The New York Times and Wall Street Journal first reported that the U.S. military planned to establish a drone base in Niger to help keep track on extremists in northern Africa. Asked about the reports at a press conference on Tuesday, Little said he refused to speculate on what the U.S. military will do.
A U.S. official said that intelligence-gathering in that part of Africa is a challenge. The United States has a drone base in Djibouti, at the southern tip of the Red Sea - on the opposite side of the continent from Mali.
"Djibouti is a long way from Bamako, and there's certainly a growing need for intelligence-gathering," the official said.
While not confirming the reports about establishing a drone base, the official noted that if one was created, the operation would need infrastructure, security and support.