Three U.S. troops were killed and two wounded Wednesday in an ambush of their joint patrol with local forces in the north-central African state of Niger, U.S. Africa Command said Thursday.
The AfriCom statement did not identify the attackers, but the al-Qaida offshoot known as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operates in neighboring Mali and has conducted cross-border raids into Niger.
The two wounded U.S. troops are in stable condition and were flown for treatment to a military hospital at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, AfriCom said.
A fourth service member from a "partner nation" also was killed in the ambush near the Mali border about 120 miles north of Niamey, Niger's capital, AfriCom said.
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The Pentagon and AfriCom did not immediately disclose the troops' names or service affiliation pending notification of their families, but several news outlets said they were members of the U.S. Special Forces.
The three killed Wednesday are the first U.S. combat casualties since U.S. forces entered Niger in 2013. In February, a member of the 3rd Special Forces Group was killed in a vehicle accident in Niger, the Pentagon said.
"U.S. 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," AfriCom said.
In neighboring Mali, about 1,600 French troops with U.S. support have been assisting local forces in battling AQIM and tribal Tuareg rebels. AQIM has conducted cross-border raids into Niger to expand its footprint in the region.
In 2013, then-President Barack Obama notified Congress that about 100 U.S. troops were being deployed to Niger. They set up a drone base near Niamey to assist the French with surveillance and intelligence, and also began serving in a train, advise and assist role with Nigerien forces.
The U.S. had already been providing the French with aerial refueling for its Mirage and Rafale warplanes.
In June, as required by law, President Donald Trump notified Congress that about 645 U.S. military personnel were in Niger.
In May, Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the AfriCom commander, said at a Pentagon briefing that he had asked for more "flexibility" that would "allow us to process targets in a more rapid fashion" without going to the top of the chain of command for approval.
Waldhauser's request was approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and authorized by Trump. Similar authority has been given to U.S. commanders in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
At the time, Waldhauser also confirmed that the U.S. had a small Special Forces contingent in Libya bordering Niger to the north to call in airstrikes in support of U.S.-backed Libyan forces battling an offshoot of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
On Sept. 24, the Pentagon and AfriCom said armed U.S. drones had conducted several "precision strikes" on an Islamic State training camp in Libya, killing 17 militants in the first American airstrikes in the strife-torn North African nation since January.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.