The Pentagon has not disclosed the troops’ names or service affiliation, pending notification of their families. Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations, confirmed for The Washington Post that those involved were assigned to an elite Special Forces unit.
The incident occurred near the border with Mali, about 120 miles north of the capital of Niamey, officials said. The deaths were first confirmed Wednesday by the New York Times.
U.S. Africa Command, which is based in Stuttgart, Germany, has provided no details about the mission, except to say it was for counterterrorism purposes. It’s unclear, though, why this unit would come into contact with enemy forces while performing what’s typically considered a training and advisory role.
The deaths mark the first known hostile-fire casualties in Niger. A 3rd Special Forces Group soldier was killed in a vehicle accident there in February.
Local media reported that the joint patrol was lured into an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo in the Tillaberi region. The attackers were described as coming from neighboring Mali, where al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch has been battling both the government and a French-led coalition seeking to root them out of their desert hideouts.
The United States has expanded its operations in Niger in recent years, including surveillance drone flights piloted from Niamey. The United States is also finishing construction on an installation at Agadez, a central city in the Sahara, that will move flights closer to southern Libya and northern Mali. Closer proximity will allow longer flights, giving drone operators more time to monitor remote desert stretches where militants are known to traverse.
The 3rd Special Forces Group and other forces are tasked with training missions in Niger to combat extremist groups in the region, including security assistance with intelligence and reconnaissance efforts. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb operates in Mali, further straining security on the border region.
Nasser Weddady, a regional security analyst, told The Post it was unusual for U.S. troops to operate far into the western parts of the country. However, the Drive website reported that the Pentagon contracted fuel deliveries for Ouallam, a city about halfway between the capital and the Mali border.
Weapons flooded into the remote Sahara desert region after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011, arming Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants who took refuge there.
An al-Qaeda-linked group briefly took over most of northern Mali in 2012 before it was defeated by a French military intervention. Remnants of the group still carry out attacks and kidnap Westerners.
Niger also faces spillover from the radical Boko Haram insurgency in Nigeria, which has expanded into attacking neighboring countries.
Paul Schemm and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.