US says it has not received a formal request by Niger junta to leave military bases

FILE - Supporters of Niger's ruling junta, gather for a protest called to fight for the country's freedom and push back against foreign interference, in Niamey, Niger, Aug. 3, 2023. A top Pentagon official says that the U.S. has not received a formal request from Niger's junta to depart the country, saying instead it has received mixed signals on whether the hundreds of U.S. troops based there are no longer welcome. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick, File)

FILE – Supporters of Niger’s ruling junta, gather for a protest called to fight for the country’s freedom and push back against foreign interference, in Niamey, Niger, Aug. 3, 2023. A top Pentagon official says that the U.S. has not received a formal request from Niger’s junta to depart the country, saying instead it has received mixed signals on whether the hundreds of U.S. troops based there are no longer welcome. (AP Photo/Sam Mednick, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — A top Pentagon official told Congress on Thursday that the U.S. has not received a formal request from Niger’s junta to depart the country, saying it has received mixed signals on whether the hundreds of U.S. troops there are no longer welcome.

Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee that so far Niger’s ruling military council, known as the CNSP, has not formally asked the U.S. military to leave.

Wallander said the CNSP has said the status of forces agreement, which sets the terms of a U.S. military presence in a country, is now null and void. However, she said the junta has “assured us that American military forces are protected and they will take no action that will endanger them.”

The U.S. military has about 650 troops and another several hundred support personnel still in Niger, which in the past has been a critical hub for counterterrorism operations. But last July mutinous soldiers ousted the country’s democratically elected president and months later asked French forces to leave.

Wallander said the U.S. is continuing to look at ways to conduct operations against violent extremist organizations in the region.

In Niger, U.S. personnel have largely consolidated to one base and continue to run drone operations, but those are limited to force protection, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said.

“There are ongoing conversations with the CNSP to discuss the path forward,” Singh said.

The quick turn of relations had some U.S. lawmakers questioning how Niger could go from a strategic ally to being run by a junta in such a short time.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Michael Langley, the head of U.S. Africa Command, said that disinformation has played a huge role in Niger and in a number of governments that have fallen across the Sahel in recent years.

There are more than 600 million people across the continent on social media now, compared to just a very small minority who had access just a decade ago, Langley said. Russia has actively and strategically saturated that audience with disinformation, Langley said.

“What we teach, the law of armed conflict and civilian-led governance is failing because its being drowned out,” Langley said.

Langley said he has asked the State Department for additional resources to counter Russia’s disinformation campaign.

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