Monday, January 28, 2013

US building drone base in NW Africa

NYTIMES: WASHINGTON — The United States military command in Africa is preparing plans to establish a drone base in northwest Africa to increase unarmed surveillance missions on the local affiliate of Al Qaeda and other Islamist extremist groups that American and other Western officials say pose a growing menace to the region.

For now, officials say they envision flying only unarmed surveillance drones from the base, though they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.

If the base is approved, the most likely location for it would be in Niger, a largely desert nation on the eastern border of Mali, where French and Malian troops are now battling Qaeda-backed fighters who control the northern part of that country. The American military’s Africa Command is also discussing options for the base with other countries in the region, including Burkina Faso, officials said.

The immediate impetus for a drone base in the region is to provide surveillance assistance to the French-led operation in Mali. “This is directly related to the Mali mission, but it could also give Africom a more enduring presence for I.S.R.,” one American military official said Sunday, referring to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

A handful of unarmed Predator drones would carry out surveillance missions in the region and fill a desperate need for more detailed information on a range of regional threats, including militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. American military commanders and intelligence analysts complain that such information has been sorely lacking.

The United States military has a very limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali. A new drone base in northwest Africa would join a constellation of small air bases in recent years on the continent, including in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.

The Africa Command’s planning still needs approval from the Pentagon and eventually from the White House, as well as from Nigerien officials. American military officials said that they were still working out some details, and that no final decision had been made. But in Niger on Monday, the two countries reached a status-of-forces agreement that provides legal protection to American troops in the country, including any who might deploy to a new drone base. The plan could face resistance from some in the White House who are wary of committing any additional American forces to a fight against a poorly understood web of extremist groups in North Africa.

If approved, the base could ultimately have as many as 300 United States military and contractor personnel, but it would probably begin with far fewer people than that, military officials said.

Some Africa specialists expressed concern that setting up a drone base in Niger or in a neighboring country, even if only to fly surveillance missions, could alienate local people who may associate the distinctive aircraft with deadly attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Officials from Niger did not respond to e-mails over the weekend about the plan, but its president, Mahamadou Issoufou, has expressed a willingness to establish what he called in a recent interview “a long-term strategic relationship with the U.S.”

“What’s happening in northern Mali is a big concern for us because what’s happening in northern Mali can also happen to us,” Mr. Issoufou said in an interview at the presidential palace in Niamey, Niger’s capital, the day before French troops swept into Mali on Jan. 11 to blunt the militant advance.

Gen. Carter F. Ham, the head of the Africa Command, who visited Niger this month to discuss expanding the country’s security cooperation with the United States, declined to comment on the proposed drone base, saying in an e-mail that the subject was “too operational for me to confirm or deny.”

Discussions about the drone base come at a time when the French operation in Mali and a militant attack on a remote gas field in the Algerian desert that left at least 37 foreign hostages, including 3 Americans, dead have thrown a spotlight on Al Qaeda’s franchise in the region, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and forced Western governments and their allies in the region to accelerate efforts to combat it.

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, said on the CBS program “Face the Nation” on Sunday that in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and the turmoil of the Arab Spring, there was “an effort to establish a beachhead for terrorism, a joining together of terrorist organizations.”

According to current and former American government officials, as well as classified government cables made public by the group WikiLeaks, the surveillance missions flown by American turboprop planes in northern Mali have had only a limited effect.

Aviano F-16 missing.

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon says a U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jet has gone missing over the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Italy, during a training mission.

A search was launched after the Air Force lost all contact with the plane Monday, but there is no immediate word from the Pentagon on whether the plane crashed.

Initial word was that the F-16 was not carrying weapons.

The F-16 fighter jet left Aviano air base in northern Italy. A search-and-rescue mission is underway.
The plane lost contact with the control tower at about 1900 GMT and the Italian coast guard has joined in the search-and-rescue in the Adriatic Sea, where the jet is presumed to have gone down.
A spokeswoman at Aviano could not immediately confirm the news, and a spokesman for Italy's coast guard was not immediately available for comment.

Iran nuke facility goes boom!

Israeli intelligence officials have confirmed that a major explosion has rocked an Iranian nuclear facility, according to a report Monday in The Times of London.
The British daily cited officials in Tel Aviv who said the blast occurred last week, as originally reported on the website
Iran is not believed to have evacuated the area surrounding the Fordo plant, according to the same Israeli sources, who said that an investigation into the blast was ongoing.
“We are still in the preliminary stages of understanding what happened and how significant it is,” one Israeli official told the London Times. He did not know if the explosion was “sabotage or accident” and refused to comment on reports that Israeli aircraft were seen near Fordo at the time of the blast.
On Sunday, two senior Iranian officials dismissed reports of the explosion.
Deputy head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency Seyyed Shamseddin Barbroudi said there had been no explosion at the Fordo facility whatsoever, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
The chairman of the Iranian parliament’s Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, referred to rumors of the blast as “Western-made propaganda” and said they were “baseless lies” meant to impact ongoing talks on Iran’s nuclear program, reported IRNA.
The original report published Friday claimed that a blast deep within Fordo last Monday “destroyed much of the installation and trapped about 240 personnel deep underground,” citing information from former intelligence officer Hamidreza Zakeri, who it said used to work with the Islamic regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security.
The article claimed the blast “shook facilities within a radius of three miles,” that Iranian security forces had “enforced a no-traffic radius of 15 miles,” that the Tehran-Qom highway was shut down for several hours after the blast, and that, “as of Wednesday afternoon, rescue workers had failed to reach the trapped personnel.” It said US officials were aware of the reported blast.
Asked about the incident on Sunday, Home Front Defense Minister Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said, “Any explosion in Iran that doesn’t hurt people but hurts its assets is welcome.” Dichter was acting defense minister Sunday, in the absence of Ehud Barak.
Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but that claim has been rejected by much of the international community. The Islamic Republic’s consistent refusal to allow international inspectors into the Fordo nuclear facility has frustrated Western powers and officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency.


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