The United States has begun unmanned drone flights from an airport in southern Ethiopia flying surveillance missions over Somalia as part of the fight against Al Shabaab, the Islamist extremist group with links to Al Qaeda.
US officials confirmed drone flights from the civilian airport in Arba Minch were underway but insisted that the Reaper drones were not armed.
The move is part of a trend towards greater U.S. military engagement on the continent, albeit often in an arms-length capacity. U.S. drones are already based in the Seychelles and Djibouti.
The remote-controlled MQ-9 Reapers are capable of carrying Hellfire missiles and satellite guided bombs and have been used to carry out assassinations of Taliban fighters and commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
However U.S. officials insist the drones launching from Ethiopia are being used for surveillance only.
Such claims will be met with some skepticism given the recent upsurge in drone strikes on Shabaab training camps and other positions in and around the southern Somali port town of Kismayo since June.
The U.S. drone wars are shrouded in mystery and denial. This week, even as a spokesman for the US 17th Air Force which oversees operations in Africa confirmed the drone flights from Arba Minch had begun, a spokesman for the Ethiopian government continued to deny there were even any U.S. drones in the country.
Ethiopia and the U.S. have cooperated in the past in trying to defeat Somalia’s Islamist militants. In 2006 Ethiopia invaded Somalia with the backing of the U.S. which flew bombing raids from an airbase in Ethiopia.