Pentagon seeks to address criticism of fatal Niger operation

Pentagon seeks to address criticism of fatal Niger operation

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon sought on Monday to tamp down criticism from lawmakers that it has not been forthcoming about the death of four U.S. soldiers in an ambush in Niger this month.

General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, told reporters that an officer at the United States Africa Command was conducting an investigation into the incident but that there were no initial signs the soldiers involved had taken too many risks.

"There has been a lot of speculation about the operation in Niger and there's a perception that the Department of Defense has not been forthcoming and I thought it would be helpful for me to personally clarify to you what we know today, and to outline what we hope to find out in the ongoing investigation,"

Dunford said.

Republican John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week he may consider issuing a subpoena because the White House had not been forthcoming with details of the attack by a local Islamic State affiliate.

The ambush threw a spotlight on the little-known counterterrorism mission in the West African country, which has about 800 U.S. troops. The United States says it is there to support Niger in fighting Islamist extremists.

Two other senators, Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Chuck Schumer, said on Sunday they had been unaware of the large U.S. presence in the country and that Congress needed more information on what could become a long and open-ended involvement.

The Pentagon said at the time that three soldiers had been killed in the ambush. The body of a fourth soldier, Sergeant La David T. Johnson, was recovered more than a day later.

Dunford told the news conference on Monday that on Oct 3., a dozen U.S. soldiers accompanied 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission near the village of Tongo Tongo.

The next day, when the forces were moving back to their base, they came under attack from about 50 enemy fighters, who appeared to be from a local Islamic State affiliate. The militants attacked with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, Dunford said.

CLOSE QUARTERS

The mission had been seen as a relatively lower-risk endeavor for elite U.S. commandos and there was no armed air cover at the time that could carry out air strikes if necessary.

Dunford said the U.S. soldiers did not call for armed air support until about an hour after the clash started.

French fighters arrived above the scene about an hour after that, said Dunford, chairman of the U.S. military's joint chiefs of staff.

The U.S. military says that the firefight was at such close quarters that the French planes could not engage and were instead left circling overhead.

Dunford said there was no indication the soldiers had taken too many risks.

"I don't have any indication right now to believe or to know that they did anything other than operate within the orders they were given," he said.

A controversy has raged for a week over how President Donald Trump has handled consoling relatives of slain service members.

The widow of a U.S. Army sergeant killed in the Niger ambush said on Monday that Trump had "made me cry even worse" in a condolence telephone call when he said her husband "knew what he signed up for."

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by David Alexander; and Eric Walsh; Editing by Tim Ahmann and Peter Cooney)

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