Pauline Jelinek?and Robert Burns

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon is moving toward setting up a military base in northwest Africa from which to operate surveillance drones to collect intelligence on Islamic militants in the region, several U.S. defense officials said Tuesday.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan is still in the works, said the base in Niger would position the U.S. to provide more help to French troops fighting al-Qaida-backed militants in neighboring Mali.

Washington has said it does not intend to put troops in Mali to assist in ground operations against the militants, but it has provided France with a variety of support, including aerial refueling of French fighters, transport of French troops and intelligence support.

The U.S. and Niger signed an agreement Monday, after months of negotiations, that sets the rules for greater American military presence there. Niger is seen as the most likely location for a new U.S. drone base, but the decision is not final.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said the agreement setting a legal framework for a future U.S. military presence is an important step, but he declined to say whether it foretells the establishment of a U.S. drone base.

“This is a very important agreement, and we are, of course, looking to work with them to define precisely what kind of military presence we may have in Niger in the future. That presence has not yet been defined,” Little said.

Little said the agreement, which he said was completed in recent days, was months in the making and was not directly related to recent developments in Mali.

Niger has accepted basing both U.S. conventional and special operations troops there to advise and assist Niger’s military in securing their border and keep tabs on militants in Mali, said a senior U.S. military official briefed on the agreement.

The U.S. is already running a limited surveillance operation from Niger’s airspace, but could expand it later. The base would support both drone surveillance and possible drone strikes or special operations raids, but those would only be carried out at the direction of the White House with the knowledge of the host country, the official said.

Africa is increasingly a focus of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, even as al-Qaida remains a threat in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The recent terrorist attack on a natural gas complex in Algeria, in which at least 37 hostages and 29 militants were killed, illustrated the threat posed by extremists who have asserted power propelled by ethnic tensions in Mali and the revolution in Libya.

A number of al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist groups operate in Mali and elsewhere in the Sahara, including a group known as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, which originated in Algeria and is active in northern Mali. Earlier this month French forces intervened to stop the extremists’ move toward Mali’s capital, and Washington has grown more involved by providing military support to French troops.

In Addis Ababa on Tuesday, African and Western nations pledged more than $450 million to fund an African-led military force to fight Islamist extremists in Mali. And Britain announced it had offered to send up to 200 military officers to help train a West African force in Mali, including up to 40 who could be sent as part of a European Union training mission of 500 personnel.