Russians arrive in Niger as military accord starts

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Soldiers from Niger holding gunsImage source, Getty Images

Dozens of Russian military instructors have arrived in Niger as part of a new accord with the country’s junta, which has cut links with its Western allies.

State media report that they arrived along with a state-of-the-art air defence system.

They are expected to install the system and teach Niger’s army how to use it.

The West African country is one of three fighting an Islamist insurgency in the Sahel region to have recently strengthened ties with Russia.

A spokesperson for Niger’s military government on Friday said the Russians were in the country to train soldiers.

The Russian Defence Ministry’s paramilitary group Africa Corps, also known as the Russian Expeditionary Corps (REK), wrote on Telegram that this was the first group of servicemen and volunteers to go to Niger.

In an attached video, a serviceman of the corps said in French that they were there to “develop military cooperation” between the countries and had brought “various special military equipment” to help with training.

Footage of the Russian instructors unloading a cargo plane full of equipment was broadcast on Niger’s state television.

Ulf Laessing, a specialist in the Sahel region for the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which promotes democracy, told the BBC World Service’s Newsday programme that the military supplies appeared to be part of a “regime survival package”.

Niger’s democratically elected President Mohamed Bazoum was overthrown last year by the junta, which has since cut military and diplomatic ties with France – the former colonial power – and revoked an agreement with the US.

The European Union suspended its security cooperation with the country in the wake of the coup.

Mr Laessing said the military government was still concerned about some form of physical interference in Niger by the political and economic alliance of West African states, known as Ecowas.

He added that this is probably the reason for the supply of a Russian air defence system, rather than to help suppress Islamist fighters.

“I don’t have any other explanations because jihadists don’t have planes,” Mr Laessing said.

Niger has been facing increased violence by the Islamic State group, as well as the continuing threat of Boko Haram militants along its border with Nigeria.

Earlier this week, at least six soldiers were killed in a blast in the Tillabery region near the border with Mali.

Niger’s defence ministry, which confirmed the attack, said an army patrol vehicle hit a landmine near the south-western village of Tingara earlier this week, killing some of the soldiers. Others were wounded and were taken to hospital.

The ministry said it had carried out an air strike to neutralise those responsible for planting the homemade land mine.

While the military government cited worsening insecurity in Niger as the reason for the coup, reports indicate that insurgents have continued to carry out attacks in parts of the country – almost on a monthly basis – especially in the Tillabery region.

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