Russian military trainers arrive in Niger as relations deteriorate with the U.S.

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DAKAR, Senegal -

Russian military trainers arrived this week in Niger to reinforce the country’s air defences as the west African nation pulls away from close cooperation with the U.S. in counterterrorism efforts, turning instead to Russia for security.

State television in Niger on Thursday broadcast footage of Russian military trainers arriving in the country aboard a plane equipped with military supplies. Two Russian trainers were filmed in front of the plane at night wearing military uniforms, caps and face coverings.

“We are here to train the Nigerian army to use the military equipment that is here,” one of the Russian trainers said in the broadcast, speaking in French. “We are here to develop military cooperation between Russia and Niger.”

Niger’s ruling military council, known as the CNSP, has yet to order American troops out, U.S. officials have said. But the arrival of Russian forces makes it complicated for the U.S. forces, along with diplomatic and civilian personnel, to remain in the country and throws into doubt the future of joint Niger-US counterinsurgency operations.

Until recently, Washington considered Niger a key partner and ally in a region swept by coups in recent years, investing millions of dollars in an airbase in a desert area that served as the heart of American counterinsurgency operations in the sub-Saharan region known as the Sahel.

The U.S. also invested heavily in training Niger’s forces to beat back insurgencies by militants linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State which ravaged the country and its neighbors. But last summer, some of those elite U.S.-trained forces took part in a coup that ousted the elected president. Since then, relations between Niger's new leaders and Washington have deteriorated.

Following the visit last month of a U.S. delegation led by the top U.S. envoy to Africa, Molly Phee, the junta announced on state television that flights from the U.S.-built airbase were illegal and that it no longer recognized the American military presence in the country. The junta criticized the U.S. for warning Niger against cooperating with Russia and Iran, saying it was trying to force the African nation to choose between partners.

A senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing talks, said Washington was looking at options for revising military cooperation with Niger. While the path forward would not be easy, there was still hope for finding a formula that addressed concerns and interests on both sides, the official said.

The Russian plane had arrived on Wednesday night, the report by Niger's state television said Thursday, and carried Russian military supplies to help Niger improve its air defenses. The broadcast said the arrival of Russian trainers followed a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the country’s military leaders in March. Niger’s military leaders are seeking to diversify their partnerships and achieve greater sovereignty, the broadcast said.

“The arrival of a Russian air defense system can be viewed as part of the junta’s effort to reclaim sovereignty, this time over its airspace, and force the U.S. and Russia to cooperate with each other in Niger," said John Lechner, Africa analyst and author on the Wagner Group. But he added that, “Such cooperation is unlikely.”

He said the Niger government may be trying to compel the U.S. forces to withdraw without explicitly pushing them out.

Since 2012, Niger and other neighbors in the region have been gripped by a worsening insurgency fought by groups linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

As recently as December, some 600 U.S. troops and hundreds more contractors were stationed in Niger, tasked with flying manned and unmanned surveillance operations and supporting local forces against jihadi groups.

Associated Press writer Sam Mednick in Jerusalem contributed. 

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