Niamey, Niger | AFP | Three US Green Berets and an unknown number of Nigerien soldiers were killed in a clash on the Niger-Mali border, where Islamic State fighters have established a presence, officials from said Thursday.
A joint US-Niger patrol fell into an ambush on Wednesday in the Tillaberi region in the country’s southwest, requiring French Mirage 2000 fighter jets to be called in for air support.
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou said there were many casualties in the battle, and US Africa Command said two more Special Forces troops were wounded.
Another person from an unnamed country was also killed, according to the Pentagon statement, which did not specifically mention Nigerien casualties.
“Our country has just been attacked once more by terrorist groups, an assault which sadly has resulted in a large number of casualties,” Issoufou said in the capital Niamey.
A French military spokesman said French helicopters had evacuated wounded from the scene and added that the fighting was continuing.
“The Nigerien operation is still ongoing, from what I know,” said French Colonel Patrik Steiger.
“It is in the area of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara,” he said, using the name of the jihadist group’s regional franchise.
The Pentagon said the clash took place approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Niamey. That puts the attack near the border with Mali, where armed jihadists are known to operate.
The two wounded US soldiers were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where they are in “stable condition,” US Africa Command said.
The report confirmed the little-known presence of US troops in the turbulent area, part of the poor and politically fragile Sahel region where jihadist groups are mounting an insurgency.
Africa Command said in a statement that US Forces are in Niger “to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces, in their efforts to counter violent extremist organizations in the region.”
Steiger said French fighter jets were sent to the scene as a show of force, but did not drop any munitions to avoid hitting the forces on the ground.
Under the name Operation Barkhane, France maintains a 4,000-man mission in the region to shore up fragile Sahel countries against jihadists who have carried out a wave of bloody bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
– Extremist rebels –
Western militaries have been actively supporting Niger forces in their effort to prevent jihadist groups in the Sahel from establishing a strong presence in the country.
In February and March, troops from the United States, Belgium, Australia and Canada, including US Special Forces, conducted a 17-day training operation with Nigerien troops focused on fighting extremist insurgents.
Issoufou did not put a number on how many Nigerien casualties there were in the clash.
He called for a minute’s silence “to the memory of our soldiers who have fallen on the field of honour” and to the memory of “all victims of terrorism.”
“Women and children pay a heavy price for terrorism, directly as innocent victims and indirectly as mothers and spouses,” Issoufou said.
At the United Nations, Mali’s Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told a Security Council meeting on the situation in Mali that the attack on the border highlighted the need for the new Sahel force tasked with fighting Islamic militants to quickly begin its operations.
“The violent and deadly clashes that occurred yesterday on the Niger-Mali border remind us once again of the pressing need to proceed to the rapid operationalization of the G5 Sahel force,” Diop told the council.
The regional force must be “rendered operational as quickly as possible in order to ensure it can withstand those who are seeking to destablise our entire region: terrorists and armed groups.”
The force set up by Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger is due to being operations later this month, but a question mark remains over its funding.