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Officials suspect Islamic State militants responsible for Niger attack
The Pentagon on Thursday confirmed three U.S. Army special operations troops were killed and two were wounded Wednesday night when they came under fire in Niger in an attack suspected to be carried out by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants.
Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said the incident happened while the forces were conducting a security advise and assist mission in southwest Niger.
"It's a pretty broad mission with the government of Niger, in order to increase their capability to stand alone and to prosecute violent extremists in the region," said Joint Staff Director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, who spoke alongside White at a Pentagon briefing.
U.S. Africa Command said in a statement Thursday that the American forces were assisting "Nigerien security force counterterror operations" when they came under fire. A Nigerien soldier was also killed.
The two wounded U.S. service members were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and are in stable condition, according to the statement.
No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place during a routine training mission along the border between Niger and Mali. The nearly dozen Army Green Berets and 20 Nigerien soldiers were ambushed in the village of Tongo Tongo, about 120 miles north of the capitol city of Niamey, The New York Times reported.
Several outlets reported ISIS-linked militants may have been responsible for the attack, but McKenzie deferred on answering whether the group was building its presence in the area or if it was responsible for the attack.
"It is inevitable that people will try to go . . . to other places," he said, before adding, "I would not at this time draw any particular conclusion from the incident that happened yesterday."
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are known to be in Mali and operate in the region, as is Boko Haram, which is based in Nigeria.
Pentagon officials also would not reveal where the attack took place, what the mission was, whether the U.S. forces were looking to engage Islamic militants - which are known to be in the area - whether the group was in vehicles or on foot, or if any enemy forces were killed.
The Times reported the attack involved a firefight that lasted roughly 30 minutes and after the U.S. and Nigerien forces ran into a large group of militants traveling in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns.
"We've been there a long time in helping African nations build partner capacity. They're ongoing operations and no more details right now," McKenzie said.
He did allow that "clearly there's risk" for the roughly 800 U.S. forces currently in Niger.
"Anytime we deploy forces globally we would look very hard at the enablers that need to be in place in order to provide security for them," he said. "I'm not going to go into any further detail on what's actually happening inside Niger because we have ongoing partnered operations occurring now."
This is the first time the U.S. military has suffered a combat casualty in Niger, even as it has increased its military influence in the country in the past several years.
The Pentagon has yet to release the names of the soldiers killed, pending family notification.