Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, right, speaks during a meeting...

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, right, speaks during a meeting with Latvian Defense Minister Andris Spruds, not pictured, at the Pentagon on Thursday, March 14, 2024, in Washington. Credit: AP/Kevin Wolf

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is working with Niger officials, seeking a way for U.S. troops to stay in the country — a key base for counterterrorism operations in sub-Saharan Africa — following a weekend directive that they leave.

Last week a high level-delegation of U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Molly Phee, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Celeste Wallander and the head of U.S. Africa Command Gen. Michael Langley, traveled to Niger to meet with members of the military junta.

Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Monday the U.S. officials had “lengthy and direct” discussions with the junta officials that were also in part spurred by concerns over Niger's potential relationships with Russia and Iran.

“We were troubled on the path that Niger is on,” Singh said.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. was “closely monitoring the Russian defense activities” there in order “to assess and mitigate potential risk to U.S. personnel, interests and assets.”

On Saturday, following the meeting, the junta’s spokesperson, Col. Maj. Amadou Abdramane, said U.S. flights over Niger’s territory in recent weeks were illegal. Meanwhile, Insa Garba Saidou, a local activist who assists Niger’s military rulers with their communications, criticized U.S. efforts to force the junta to pick between strategic partners.

“The American bases and civilian personnel cannot stay on Nigerien soil any longer,” he told The Associated Press.

Singh said the U.S. was aware of the March 16 statement “announcing the end of the status of forces agreement between Niger and the United States. We are working through diplomatic channels to seek clarification. These are ongoing discussions and we don't have more to share at this time.”

State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said the discussions were prompted by Niger's “trajectory."

“We are in touch with transition authorities to seek clarification of their comments and discuss additional next steps,” Patel said.

The junta has largely been in control in Niger since July when mutinous soldiers ousted the country’s democratically elected president and months later asked French forces to leave.

The U.S. military still had some 650 troops working in Niger in December, largely consolidated at a base farther away from Niamey, Niger's capital. Singh said the total number of personnel still in country, including civilians and contractors, is roughly 1,000.

The Niger base is critical for U.S. counterterrorism operations in the Sahel and has been used for both manned and unmanned surveillance operations, although Singh said the only drone flights being currently conducted are for force protection.

In the Sahel the U.S. has also supported local ground troops, including accompanying them on missions. However, such accompanied missions have been scaled back since U.S. troops were killed in a joint operation in Niger in 2017.

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Christopher Megerian contributed from Washington, D.C.

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