By Daniel Flynn and Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger would welcome the deployment of armed U.S. drones to the West African country to help in its battle against an armed Islamist threat and drug trafficking in the Sahara, Foreign Minister Mohamed Bazoum said on Wednesday.
Washington deployed about 100 military personnel and unarmed surveillance drones in Niger after a French-led military operation in January destroyed an al Qaeda enclave in neighboring northern Mali.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou's government, concerned not only by the presence of Islamists but also the trafficking of arms, cocaine and cannabis in the north, wants to further reinforce military ties with the country's Western partners.
"Our cooperation is giving good results but it is not enough. It needs to be reinforced and rethought at every level: both our capacity to collect intelligence and to conduct operations," Bazoum told Reuters in an interview.
France has sent Special Forces to Niger to protect uranium mines, operated by its state-controlled nuclear energy company Areva, which are crucial to French electricity supplies. But it does not have armed drones.
Used for protecting American troops in largely uncontested air space in Iraq and Afghanistan and killing terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen, drones can be remotely piloted from bases in the United States.
Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have increased dramatically under President Barack Obama and the pilotless aerial vehicles have become a key part of the fight against al Qaeda.
Niger has reinforced its border patrols with an additional 3,000 troops but needs help on equipment to take on groups of armed traffickers operating near the border regions with Mali, Algeria and lawless southern Libya.
An EU mission is training security forces to tackle the threat but their efficacy is constrained by a lack of aircraft, vehicles and weapons.
"Drug trafficking is destabilizing because the huge amount of money in the hands of these groups means they exceed our army's capacity in terms of weapons," Bazoum said. Gangs also used their profits to corrupt local authorities and security forces, he said.
Despite the presence in Mali of some 3,000 French troops and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA), to which Niger contributes troops, trafficking routes across West Africa remain wide open, from Mauritania on the Atlantic coast, through Algeria and Mali, into Niger and Libya, Bazoum said.
"I would really welcome armed drones to shoot down drug traffickers, and all those who live from activities linked to drug trafficking. I don't see why that shouldn't be possible," Bazoum said.
COOPERATION STEPPING UP
Washington has been stepping up military cooperation with Issoufou's government, elected in 2011 after a transition from a military coup and seen as one of the most stable in the turbulent Sahel region, and will hold annual regional military maneuvers, known as Operation Flintlock, in Niger next year.
May's suicide attacks on Areva's mine at Arlit and a military barracks in Agadez were launched by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) group.
They claimed the assaults were retaliation for France's military operation in Mali and Niger's support for it.
The minister acknowledged that some Islamist fighters had returned to Niger after their defeat in Mali and were hiding in the region of Tassara and Tilaberi, close to the Malian border, and others remained in Mali.
But he said they were weakened and unable to carry out attacks.
"Organized terrorist bases, with an immediate operational capacity, are impossible in Mali or Niger," he said.
Security concerns in Niger - where al Qaeda has carried out several kidnappings of Westerners - have hampered the development of uranium resources. In mid-2013, Australia's Paladin Energy ceased exploration and declared force majeure in Niger.
Bazoum praised MINUSMA for preventing the return of Islamists. Mali's peaceful post-war elections in August, which saw Ibrahim Boubacar Keita elected president, showed al Qaeda was no longer in a position to carry out attacks there, he said.
Malian nationalists have questioned the need for the 12,600-strong U.N. force, but Bazoum said the U.N. mission would ensure the return of state institutions to northern Mali in the face of pressure from armed Tuareg separatists for greater autonomy.
"MINUSMA, to achieve its mission, needs to remain in Mali a few years," Bazoum said. "I think it will be there for another two or three years."
(Editing by Joe Bavier and Sonya Hepinstall)
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