President Barack Obama has deployed American military personnel and drone aircraft to the African country of Niger, where they could be used to support a French counterterrorism mission in neighboring Mali.
Defense Department officials told NBC News that a first wave will include two Raptor surveillance drones and 250 to 300 military personnel, including remote pilots and security and maintenance crews. They are expected to arrive soon.
The officials stressed that the drones are meant for surveillance only. The White House has faced criticism for a legal memo concluding that the U.S. government can use drones to kill American citizens overseas in certain cases.
Besides helping the French in Mali, the drones could be used to provide intelligence on a growing Islamic militant threat throughout North and East Africa.
The president notified Congress on Friday under the War Powers Act, which requires him to tell Congress when heavily armed U.S. military personnel are newly deployed to a region or nation.
Obama told Congress that the U.S. military presence was under the consent of the government of Niger, and that they would “facilitate intelligence-sharing” with the French. He said that the American military personnel were armed for their own protection and security.
Next door in Mali, Tuareg rebels overthrew the government last year. Islamists then pushed the rebels aside, taking control of important towns and pushing toward the capital.
France intervened last month — initially with airstrikes and later with about 4,000 ground troops. The United States has flown French troops and equipment into Mali and refueled French fighter jets there, the Pentagon has said. France plans to begin withdrawing troops from Mali next month, once African forces are in place to take over.
On Friday, five people were killed in a remote Malian town in car bomb attacks by Islamists on Tuareg fighters, a spokesman for the Tuareg fighters said.
Reuters contributed to this report.