The United States military said on Friday that a fourth soldier was killed during an attack on Wednesday in Niger, raising the death toll from an incident that has thrown a spotlight on the US counter-terrorism mission in the West African nation.
- The death of three soldiers was announced previously
- The patrol was attacked by militants riding in a dozen vehicles and about 20 motorcycles
- No group has taken responsibility, US officials suspect the Islamic State group
The US had previously announced three US Army Special Forces soldiers had been killed and another two wounded when a joint US-Nigerien patrol came under attack near the village of Tongo Tongo.
It did not disclose until Friday that a fourth soldier had been missing.
Officials said his body was found by Nigerien forces on Friday morning near the site of the ambush, ending an extensive rescue and recovery mission.
No group has taken responsibility for the killings, although officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, say the US suspects a local branch of the Islamic State group was responsible.
The US military's Africa Command declined to publicly name any group but said the American military would hunt down the insurgents.
"Absolutely, we are resolved and stalwart in our efforts to go after those who attacked this joint patrol of Nigerien and US forces," said Army Colonel Mark Cheadle, a spokesman for the US military's Africa Command.
From initial accounts, the 40-member patrol, which included about a dozen US troops, came under a swift attack by militants riding in a dozen vehicles and on about 20 motorcycles.
Islamist militants form part of a regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa's Sahel.
Jihadists have stepped up attacks on UN peace keepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.
US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed joint counter-terrorism operations in the Sahel to defeat Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups during a call on Friday, the White House said.
Colonel Cheadle said the US and Nigerien troops had been meeting with local leadership at the time of the attack, in what had been seen as a relatively lower-risk endeavour for America's elite commandos.
There was not even any armed air cover at the time that could carry out air strikes if necessary.
"It was not meant to be an engagement with the enemy. It was meant to establish relations with the local leaders and the threats at the time were deemed to be unlikely, so there was no overhead armed air cover during the engagement," he said.
Colonel Cheadle acknowledged that loss of elite US forces would trigger a review of how the US military carries out operations but did not suggest any move to scale back the American mission.
On Friday the US military published the names of the three Army Special Forces soldiers from 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) who were killed in the engagement.
They were Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The US military said it had surged resources to Niger to try to locate the missing American soldier.
Colonel Cheadle said that included US fighter jets, helicopters and surveillance assets.
"There was a full-court press," he said.