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Europe's security plans in the Sahel as US remains coy about future of $200 million drone bases
Two weeks after proclaiming full support for democracy in Niger and its ousted elected President Mohamed Bazoum, France's President Emmanuel Macron announced the immediate recall of his country's diplomatic team in Niger and troops on 24 September. Military co-operation between France and Niger was 'over', said Macron. On 26, the Niamey junta called for talks about the sequencing of the French withdrawal to avoid a 'security vacuum'.
No other European powers have offered to take France's role. For now, United States' officials are keeping military operations in Niger: these include two drone bases costing over US$200 million which provide real-time intelligence for Washington about the operations of jihadist and Russian forces, such as Wagner, in the Sahel.
US operations also provide some income for the Niger state. And Washington has declined to designate the ousting of the Bazoum government as a coup d'etat which would have, under US law, compelled the admistration to shut down all military operations in the country.
Paris has taken a much more confrontational line towards the Niamey junta, endorsing the threat of force against it levelled by the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
After being declared persona non grata by the junta on 26 August, France's ambassador Sylvain Itté had been confined to the embassy, with officials in Paris complaining last week that food parcels were being blocked from reaching the embassy (Dispatches 20/9/23, Macron digs in amid diplomatic 'hostage' claims).
Paris will withdraw the remaining 1,500 French troops from Niger before the end of 2023, Macron said. France had already begun to repatriate military hardware including jets, helicopters and drones and some soldiers. The junta had previously suggested that it could cooperate with a reduced French military presence (AC Vol 64 No 18, The withdrawal starts).
Also planning some changes is the European Union, which had previously expressed its solidarity with Itté. On the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, the EU's High Representative on Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell reiterated that the bloc would 'reassess' its Sahel strategy. Borrell has proposed working in tandem with the US, which has around 1,000 troops in Niger.
Last week, the EU's ambassador in Niamey, Portuguese diplomat Salvador Pinto da França was summoned ro meet the junta's prime minister, Ali Mahaman Lamine Zeine. Afterwards, the European Commission's foreign affairs spokesperson Nabila Massrali said that 'the EU does not recognise authorities emanating from the putsch,' adding that 'President Bazoum remains the sole legitimate president of Niger.'
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