DAKAR, Senegal — The United States started arming drones in the West African nation of Niger earlier this year, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

"In coordination with the Government of Niger, U.S. Africa Command has armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft already in Niger to improve our combined ability to respond to threats and other security issues in the region. Armed ISR aircraft began flying in early 2018," Samantha Reho, spokeswoman for U.S. Africa Command, told The Associated Press.

The armed drones are currently deployed to Niger's Air Base 101 in Niamey. The effort was supported by Niger, and is part of the long-term strategic partnership between the U.S. and Niger to help counter violent extremists in the region, she said.

As a matter of operational security, Reho said she could not discuss whether strikes have already been carried out by the armed drones.

MQ-9 drones currently flying out of Niger's capital will eventually be moved to Nigerien Air Base 201, which is being built in Agadez, on the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert. The new base is part of efforts by the U.S. to battle the growing extremist threat in Africa's vast Sahel. The $110 million project is the largest troop labor construction project in U.S. history, according to Air Force officials.

Adding striking capabilities to the drones is a major step forward in the fight against extremist threats that include al-Qaida-linked fighters in Mali and Burkina Faso, Islamic State group-affiliated fighters in Niger, Mali and Nigeria and the Nigeria-based Boko Haram.

The drones have a range enabling them to reach a number of West and North African countries.

The U.S. military received approval from Niger to arm drones months after an October ambush by Islamic State group-linked extremists killed four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers just outside the village of Tongo Tongo. Two American soldiers and eight Nigerien forces were also wounded in the attack by more than 100 militants.

The U.S. Air Force has said that intelligence gathering by the drones can also be used by Niger and other U.S. partners for prosecuting extremists.

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