The US military said a fourth soldier was killed during an attack last Wednesday in Niger, raising the death toll from an incident that has thrown a spotlight on the US counter-terrorism mission in the West African nation.
The United States previously said three US Army Special Forces soldiers were killed and another two wounded when a joint US-Nigerien patrol came under attack near Tongo Tongo.
It did not disclose until Friday that a fourth soldier was missing. Officials said his body was found by Nigerien forces on Friday near the ambush site, ending an extensive rescue and recovery mission.
No group has taken responsibility for the killings, although officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the United States suspects a local branch of Islamic State was responsible.
The US military’s Africa Command declined to publicly name any group but said the American military would hunt down the insurgents.
“Absolutely, we are resolved and stalwart in our efforts to go after those who attacked this joint patrol,” said Army Colonel Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for Africa Command.
From initial accounts, the 40-member patrol, including about a dozen US troops, came under attack by militants riding in vehicles and on about 20 motorcycles.
Islamist militants form part of a regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa’s Sahel.
Jihadists stepped up attacks on UN peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.
US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed joint counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel to defeat al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups during a call, the White House said.
Cheadle said US and Nigerien troops were meeting with local leadership at the time of the attack, in what was as a relatively lower-risk endeavour for America’s elite commandos.
There was no armed air cover at the time that could carry out air strikes if necessary.
“It was not meant to be an engagement. It was meant to establish relations with local leaders and threats at the time were deemed to be unlikely, so there was no overhead armed air cover during the engagement,” he said.
Cheadle acknowledged the loss of elite US forces would trigger a review of how the US military carries out operations but did not suggest any move to scale back the American mission.
The names of the three Army Special Forces soldiers from 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) who were killed when their reconnaissance patrol with Nigerien forces came under fire are Staff Sergeant Bryan Black (35) of Puyallup, Washington, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson (39) of Springboro, Ohio and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright (29) of Lyons, Georgia.
The US military said it upped resources to Niger to locate the missing American soldier. Cheadle said that included fighter jets, helicopters and surveillance assets.
“There was a full-court press,” he said.