**U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced $150 million in direct assistance to Africa's Sahel region Thursday as he visited Niger, seeking to strengthen ties with a country that has so far avoided the recent spate of military coups and Russian mercenaries destabilizing its neighbors.
Blinken's visit comes as both Mali and Burkina Faso remain increasingly volatile, each having gone through two military coups a piece since 2020. Both neighbors also have kicked out French troops from their countries and have enlisted Russian military assistance amid the unabating violence wreaked by Islamic extremists.
Blinken on Thursday called Niger "a model of resilience, a model of democracy, a model of cooperation" in the region and warned that the expansion of Russian mercenaries in the region would not bode well for the countries embracing them.
"It's not just that we know this is going to end badly - we've already seen it," he said, adding that the shadowy Russian outfit has not provided "an effective response to insecurity" in the other places where it has operated.
"At the same time we've seen countries find themselves weaker, poorer, more insecure, less independent as a result of the association with Wagner," Blinken said at a joint news conference held wtih Niger's Foreign Affairs Minister Hassoumi Massoudou. He was referring to the Russian paramilitary organization known as the Wagner Group.
"So this is not a recipe for success that I think anyone should be looking to. But yes, it is incumbent upon us to demonstrate through this much more comprehensive approach to insecurity that we can actually deliver results," Blinken said.
Over the past decade, Islamic extremists have greatly expanded their reach across the Sahel, the region located just below the Sahara Desert in Africa. Some of the worst violence has taken place in the area where Niger's porous borders meet with Mali and Burkina Faso.
Niger has emerged as a key international partner in the region at a time when anti-French sentiment is on the rise in Mali and Burkina Faso. People have openly waved Russian flags in those countries, urging the junta governments to lean more toward Moscow and away from France, the former colonizer.
As relations sharply deteriorated with Mali's junta-leader-turned-president, France relocated its troops there to Niger instead after spending nearly a decade trying to help the Malian military combat Islamic extremists. About 1,000 Wagner mercenaries are believed to be operating in Mali, and over the past year they have been accused of human rights violations.
Burkina Faso denies recruiting Wagner fighters, though it says Russian instructors will conduct military training after equipment was purchased from Moscow.
Blinken traveled to Niger after a two-day stop in Ethiopia, where he said the country needs to make more progress implementing a peace agreement with its northern Tigray region before relations with the U.S. are normalized.
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