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The Washington Post reported recently that American Air Force Reaper drones began flying out of Tunisian bases in late June of this year and have been conducting surveillance operations over Libya since. The drones are said to be supported by 70 members of the US military.
However, the reports were denied by the Tunisian Ministry of Defense.
According to the Washington Post, US officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told the paper that the drones operating out of Tunisia were principally being used to collect intelligence on Islamic State, (Daesh) targets in Sirte, Libya, where the United States has conducted more than 300 airstrikes since August.
However, tunisia-live.net reports that Tunisian officials responded to the Post’s allegations by stating that “the Ministry of National Defense denies the reports circulating in foreign media outlets concerning the existence of US bases in Tunisia or the use of the Tunisian soil to target military spots in Libya.” The statement also confirmed that military relations between the two countries remain limited to US training on surveillance, an initiative announced in March.
Referring to anonymous sources with the US government, the Post acknowledged the sensitivity of their report, saying: “Tunisian officials negotiating the drone deal were particularly concerned about a public backlash over cooperation with a foreign power and wanted to avoid the appearance that they were a party to U.S. military operations in a neighboring country.”
So far, the Post’s report has gained very little media attention within Tunisia, with none of the country’s mainstream media outlets making much mention of the alleged bases.
US officials told the Post that establishing the bases in Tunisia would close a critical “blind spot” for western intelligence services in North Africa, which has become Daesh’s largest base of operations outside of Syria and Iraq.
Reliable intelligence would likely be particularly valuable to Tunisian and US authorities following the UN-backed government’s attack on Sirte, Daesh’ principal stronghold in Libya. The US-supported assault has also prompted fears within Tunisian government circles of a potential overspill of the conflict from the war-torn country into Tunisia.
Carlino Ludovico, Senior Analyst, Middle East and North Africa at IHS Country Risk told tunisia-live that he was surprised over suggestions of a US drone base in Tunisia, noting the existence of the current American base at Sigonella in Sicily. “If the report is true,” Ludovico said, “I think this has more to do with the expansion of US drone operations across Africa.”
“Among the North African countries, Tunisia is probably seen by the West as the most reliable military partner in this moment. The recent deployment of UK military advisers in Tunisia only confirms this trend.”
Tunisia has suffered a number of terror attacks believed to have been planned, equipped and directed by its southeastern neighbor. Further to the attacks was the insurgency at Ben Guerdane in March of this year, which was believed to have been equipped by militant forces within Libya.