WASHINGTON — After an extensive search, a U.S. soldier who had been missing for nearly two days in Niger was found dead, a result of a deadly ambush by dozens of Islamic extremists on a joint patrol of American and Niger forces, U.S. military officials said Friday.
The soldier, whose name has not been released, was one of four U.S. troops and four Niger forces killed in the attack.
His body was found by Niger soldiers on Friday near where the ambush occurred, and then transferred into U.S. custody at a safer location farther from the attack site, said Army Col. Mark Cheadle, spokesman for U.S. Africa Command. The soldier’s body was then moved onto an American helicopter by U.S. forces in a ceremony and then taken away for formal identification.
Eight Niger soldiers and two U.S. troops were wounded in the attack, but they were evacuated from the area on Wednesday after the attack unfolded. Cheadle said there was no indication the missing soldier was ever taken captive by the enemy forces.
U.S. officials described a chaotic assault in a densely wooded area, as 40-50 extremists in vehicles and on motorcycles fired rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns at the patrol, setting off explosions and shattering windows. The soldiers got out of their trucks, returning fire and calling in support from French helicopters and fighter jets that quickly responded to the scene, according to officials. It’s unclear if the French aircraft were armed or if they fired on the insurgents.
The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. officials say they believe extremists linked to the Islamic State group were responsible for the attack about 120 miles north of Niger’s capital, Niamey.
The U.S. and Niger forces were leaving a meeting with tribal leaders when they were ambushed.
Cheadle said there were no armed aircraft overhead as the U.S. and Niger forces went on their mission, but there was surveillance. The meeting with local leaders, he said, had been considered a low threat mission that wasn’t likely to lead to an encounter with any enemy forces.
He said there were about a dozen U.S. forces accompanying a company of Niger troops, for a total of about 40 service members in the joint mission.
Most of the U.S. troops were Army special forces, but the soldier found Friday was not a Green Beret, other U.S. officials said.
In the frenetic aftermath of the attack, a wide array of forces from the U.S., Niger and France were tapped to search for the missing soldiers. It’s not clear if the U.S. sent ground forces in to search, but Niger troops were actively looking for the soldier.
U.S. forces killed in the attack were: Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Ga.