Troops killed in attack on US-Niger patrol
05 Oct 2017 - 13:41
Niamey: Several soldiers were killed -- among them reportedly US special forces -- when a joint US-Niger patrol was ambushed near the border with Mali, the first time that the presence of American troops has been confirmed in the troubled area.
Wednesday's attack adds to concerns that violence in Mali is spilling over into Niger, part of the poor and politically fragile Sahel where jihadist groups are mounting an insurgency.
Three members of the American special forces were among the dead, according to a New York Times report citing US military officials.
Separately, the US Africa command confirmed in a statement that a joint US and Nigerien patrol came under fire in Niger.
But it said nothing about casualties, adding that officials are working to confirm details.
A security official in Niger told AFP, "we lost men in an attack on Wednesday in Tillaberi," southwestern Niger, adding it was "probably a terrorist attack."
The source gave no further details.
A regional official in Tillaberi described the incident to AFP on Thursday as "an ambush attack by heavily armed men from Mali (who) targeted Nigerien and American soldiers -- instructors".
This was the first time that the presence of American soldiers has been confirmed in the border area with Mali -- a region destabilised by cross-border jihadist attacks on the Nigerien army and refugee camps.
The zone has been under a state of emergency since March. In mid-June, the Nigerien army mounted an operation in the Tillaberi region to take on the jihadists.
Wednesday's attack also points to the first known US combat casualties in Niger, where Washington provides training and security assistance.
According to Radio France Internationale (RFI), the ambush took place after militants from Mali attacked the village of Tongo Tongo in the North Tillaberi region on Wednesday.
A counter-operation was launched, but the American and Niger soldiers fell into a trap, according to the radio report.
The New York Times said three US Green Berets were killed in the ambush and two others injured.
RFI said the toll was heavy, with the deaths of several Nigerien and US soldiers and others listed as missing.
A reprisal operation was launched afterwards, RFI added.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters in Washington that US President Donald Trump had been told "about Niger" without giving further information.
The Sahel -- the belt of countries that share the vast southern Saharan desert -- has become prey to violent jihadism, which has flared since an insurgency in Mali five years ago.
One of the sources for the unrest is northern Mali, which in 2012 fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda who exploited an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising.
The Islamists were largely ousted from towns by a French-led military operation, and the United Nations has 12,500 troops and police serving there in its MINUSMA force.
But attacks have continued on civilians, the Malian army as well as French and UN forces, and much of the region is in the hands of armed groups, including former rebels and bandits.
Violence has also spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger, prompting a warning from the United Nations.
Five countries that have been badly hit -- Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger -- have gathered together in a so-called "G5 Sahel" coalition.
France is pushing for the G5 to set up a joint anti-jihadist force of 5,000 men, but the plan has met with worries over funding.
An estimated 400 million euros ($471 million) is required to make it operational.