By Dalatou Mamane and Lolita C. Baldor
Niamey, Niger (AP) — Three U.S. Army special operations commandos and one “partner nation” member were killed in an attack in Niger’s southwest. The ambush happened while the U.S. was providing assistance to security force counter-terror operations, U.S. Africa Command said Thursday.
U.S. officials did not specify the nationality of the fourth soldier killed, but said two other U.S. service members were wounded in Wednesday’s attack about 124 miles north of Niger’s capital, Niamey, near its border with Mali.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said several Niger soldiers died in the attack, which he said was carried out by Mali-based Islamic extremists near Niger’s village of Tongo-Tongo in the Tillaberi region.
“Our country is once again the target of a terrorist attack, with a large number of victims,” he said.
Islamic extremist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, operate in the region and sporadically launch cross-border raids. Despite the intervention of French troops in 2013 that pushed the extremists from their strongholds in northern Mali, they continue their attacks.
Boko Haram, based south in Nigeria, has also staged several attacks in Niger.
U.S. Africa Command said the forces were with a joint U.S. and Nigerien patrol near the Mali border, when they came under hostile fire Wednesday. The U.S. forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces in their efforts against violent extremists, said the statement.
The two wounded U.S. service members were evacuated in stable condition to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, U.S. Africa Command said in its statement.
The commandos, who were Green Berets, were likely attacked by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb militants, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
The White House said President Donald Trump was notified about the attack Wednesday night as he flew aboard Air Force One from Las Vegas to Washington.
Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are putting together a 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force to fight the growing threat from extremists in the vast Sahel region. The first units are expected to deploy in October and all battalions should be on the ground by March 2018.
The Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in June welcoming the deployment, but at U.S. insistence it did not include any possibility of U.N. financing for the force.
The countries have been pressing the international community to help with funding of equipping the troops and ensuring their mobility, communications and protection in the field.
That force will operate in the region along with a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali and France’s 5,000-strong Barkhane military operation, its largest overseas mission. The region has become the deadliest in the world for U.N. peacekeepers.