Caught in a deadly ambush, U.S. troops in Niger waited an hour for French air power to arrive

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Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the incident where four U.S. service members were killed in Niger on Oct. 4. (The Washington Post)

The U.S. Special Forces team caught in a deadly ambush three weeks ago in Niger did not request help from nearby French forces for about an hour after the firefight began near a village the Americans had visited during a reconnaissance mission several hours prior, the Pentagon’s top general said Monday.

It then took the French another hour to get fighter jets over the American troops, according to a new timeline provided by Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The disclosure doubles the amount of time the U.S. troops were believed to have fought without significant additional help.

“This is a very complex situation that they found themselves in, and a pretty tough firefight,” Dunford said.

Four U.S. soldiers were killed and two others were wounded in the battle Oct. 4. Five Nigerien troops also died. The mission has ignited a political firestorm, raising questions about the U.S. military’s broader mission in Africa and why one of the fallen soldiers, Sgt. La David Johnson, was not recovered for two days.

Senior U.S. officials are fairly certain, Dunford said, that when the soldiers left their base Oct. 3, their mission was to conduct a routine reconnaissance patrol to Tongo Tongo, a village near Niger’s border with Mali. Less clear is whether they deviated from that task, whether they had adequate communications to call for help and how Johnson wound up missing.

An ongoing investigation aims to answer those questions, Dunford said.

“What tactical instructions a commander on the ground gave at a given time to cause the units to maneuver, and where they may have been when Sergeant Johnson’s body was found, those are all questions that will be identified during the investigation,” he said, acknowledging the growing perception — both among the American public and lawmakers on Capitol Hill — that the Pentagon has not been forthcoming about the incident.

Several members of Congress have called for a hearing on the Niger operation, even after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis went to Capitol Hill last week to discuss its details with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Dunford said that about 50 militants affiliated with the Islamic State launched the ambush in the middle of the morning as the U.S.-Nigerien patrol, comprising 12 Americans and 30 Nigeriens, headed away from the village en route back to their base. The militants were armed with machine guns, small arms and rockets, he added.

There are no indications U.S. troops requested help for the first hour, Dunford said. Once they did, a U.S. drone arrived overhead “within minutes,” he added, and it captured video of the fight below.

Myeshia Johnson spoke out about President Trump’s condolence call to her after her husband, Sgt. LaDavid Johnson, was killed in Niger on Oct. 4. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

It took another 30 minutes to launch the French Mirage fighters that came to soldiers’ defense, and an additional 30 minutes for them to arrive on scene, Dunford said. So the soldiers were on their own for about two hours.

The Pentagon had said previously that jets were overhead within 30 minutes of the request. Dunford attributed the discrepancy to internal confusion as U.S. military officials assess what happened.

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