U.S. troops and investigators traveled over the weekend to the Niger village where Sgt. La David Johnson may have been captured and executed.
U.S. Africa Command on Sunday released a statement saying that a joint U.S. and Nigerien military investigation team entered the village of Tongo Tongo in northwestern Niger near the Mali border "to gain a clearer understanding of the Oct. 4 ambush, the attack site and the surrounding environment."
On Oct. 4, a joint patrol of about 12 U.S. troops from the 3rd Special ForcesGroup and 30 Nigerien troops left Tongo Tongo after taking on water and other supplies and was returning to base near Niamey, the Nigerien capital, about 46 miles to the south.
The patrol was ambushed outside Tongo Tongo by what has been described by U.S. military officials and several news reports, citing local villagers, as a force of about 50 militants who attacked using pickup trucks and motorcycles.
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Four U.S. troops were killed and two others were wounded. Four Nigerien troops and a Nigerien interpreter for the Americans also were killed.
Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, was killed, as well as Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, of Puyallup, Washington; Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of Springboro, Ohio; and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29, of Lyons, Georgia.
The visit to Tongo Tongo "allowed the investigation team to gather information and determine the facts related to the ambush," the AfriCom statement said.
For the first time since the Oct. 4 ambush, the U.S. and Nigerien team "interviewed local villagers; conducted a physical examination of multiple areas of interest related to the attack; and retraced actions leading up to, during and after this ambush," AfriCom said.
One of the main questions the team is seeking to answer is how Sgt. Johnson became separated from the rest of the patrol during the firefight. His body was not found until two days after the others were recovered.
Last Friday, two of the villagers told The Washington Post that Johnson's hands were tied and the back of his head had been smashed.
"His two arms were tied behind his back," Adamou Boubacar, 23, a farmer, told the newspaper in a phone interview. Boubacar had given similar accounts previously to other news outlets.
Another witness told the Post separately that the back of Johnson's head "was a mess, as if they had hit him with something hard, like a hammer. They took his shoes. He was wearing only socks."The Pentagon has mainly withheld comment on the ambush pending the completion of an Article 15-6 fact-finding investigation under Army regulations led by Army Maj. Gen. Roger L. Cloutier Jr., chief of staff to Marine Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Africa Command.
Last month, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford put no timeline on the investigation but said at a news conference that once the results are in, his top priority is to share the findings with the families of the fallen first.
"That's my primary target audience right now. We'll address it fully" in public once the families are informed, he said.
Under their rules of engagement, the 12 U.S. soldiers on the patrol "were authorized to accompany Nigerien forces when the prospects for enemy contact was unlikely," Dunford said.
Dunford later told reporters traveling with him to South Korea that he had read the mission assignment "and it was a patrol to go out and identify information about the local area."
NBC News and other outlets, citing defense officials, have reported that the patrol diverted from its reconnaissance mission to pursue an extremist leader, possibly part of a new group called the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel, who was thought to be in the area.
However, Dunford said the patrol "was not targeted or focused on any specific Islamic State leader or location, because that would have made the mission enemy contact, more likely. The estimate at the time was enemy contact was not likely," Military Times reported.
Dunford did not comment on reports that a second U.S. Special Forces team was in the area with the mission of pursuing extremist leaders, or whether the two teams were in contact.
"What I don't know, and what the investigation will find out is -- did they have a change of mission at any given point?" he said. "If so, how did they get that change of mission? Who approved that change of mission? What was that mission?"
In remarks to reporters at the White House last month, President Donald Trump said he did not personally authorize the Niger patrol but added that he had given commanders there wide discretion to conduct operations, as he has in other regions.
"I gave them authority to do what's right so that we win. That's the authority they have. I want to win and we're going to win, and we're beating ISIS very badly," Trump said.
In its statement Sunday, AfriCom said the visit to Tongo Tongo was conducted under tight security. In its guarded comments thus far, the Pentagon has said that the patrol that was ambushed was operating in an area where contact was not likely.
The Pentagon said the area had been patrolled at least 26 times without incident, though a United Nations report said there had been terror attacks in the vicinity at least 46 times this year.
"The safety and security of our personnel, our partner forces and civilians in the region was of paramount importance" during the mission of the investigative team, AfriCom said.
"We went to great lengths during this mission to protect operational security and to ensure we were able to accomplish the operation with minimal impact on the local citizens," AfriCom said."Sufficient assets were available in the event we had to respond to an attack that threatened innocent civilians, our partner forces or our own personnel," AfriCom said.
The statement did not specify whether air support was assigned to protect the investigative team. In his news conference last month, Dunford said it took at least two hours for French Mirage jets and rotary aircraft to arrive at the scene of the firefight.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.