By Boureima HAMA, with Paul HANDLEY in Washington
Niamey (AFP) Oct 5, 2017
Three US Green Berets and four Nigerien soldiers were killed in a clash on the Niger-Mali border, where Islamic State fighters have established a presence, officials said Thursday.
A joint US-Niger patrol fell into an ambush on Wednesday in the Tillaberi region in the country's southwest, requiring French Mirage 2000 fighter jets to be called in for air support.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou said there were many casualties in the battle, and US Africa Command said two more Special Forces troops were wounded.
The fatal "ambush" also wounded eight Nigerien troops, a statement from Niger's defence ministry said.
Another person from an unnamed country was also killed, according to the Pentagon statement.
"Our country has just been attacked once more by terrorist groups, an assault which sadly has resulted in a large number of casualties," Issoufou said in the capital Niamey.
A French military spokesman said French helicopters had evacuated wounded from the scene and added that the fighting was continuing.
"The Nigerien operation is still ongoing, from what I know," said French Colonel Patrik Steiger.
"It is in the area of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara," he said, using the name of the jihadist group's regional franchise.
The Pentagon said the clash took place approximately 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Niamey. That puts the attack near the border with Mali, where armed jihadists are known to operate.
The two wounded US soldiers were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany where they are in "stable condition," US Africa Command said.
The report confirmed the little-known presence of US troops in the turbulent area, part of the poor and politically fragile Sahel region where jihadist groups are mounting an insurgency.
US troops have increased their presence in Niger in recent years but this appeared to be their first firefight, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, Joint Staff Director, told reporters in Washington.
"I'm not aware there's been any incident of that nature in the recent past," he said.
"I don't know that they were ambushed," McKenzie said. "There was an engagement. I think we're still gathering information on that."
McKenzie did not give troop numbers but said US forces are there to "train, advise, assist" Niger's government to increase its capability to stand alone against violent extremists.
The US casualties will not alter that goal, he said.
"We're committed to that relationship. We believe that they are as well. In fact I think it's a very good success story."
France's Steiger said French fighter jets were sent to the scene as a show of force, but did not drop any munitions to avoid hitting the forces on the ground.
Under the name Operation Barkhane, France maintains a 4,000-man mission in the region to shore up fragile Sahel countries against jihadists who have carried out a wave of bloody bombings, shootings and kidnappings.
- Extremist rebels -
Western militaries have been actively supporting Niger forces in their effort to prevent jihadist groups in the Sahel from establishing a strong presence in the country.
In February and March, troops from the United States, Belgium, Australia and Canada, including US Special Forces, conducted a 17-day training operation with Nigerien troops focused on fighting extremist insurgents.
Issoufou did not put a number on how many Nigerien casualties there were in the clash but called for a minute's silence "to the memory of our soldiers who have fallen on the field of honour."
At the United Nations, Mali's Foreign Minister Abdoulaye Diop told a Security Council meeting on the situation in Mali that the attack on the border highlighted the need for the new Sahel force tasked with fighting Islamic militants to quickly begin its operations.
"The violent and deadly clashes that occurred yesterday on the Niger-Mali border remind us once again of the pressing need to proceed to the rapid operationalisation of the G5 Sahel force," Diop told the council.
The regional force must be "rendered operational as quickly as possible in order to ensure it can withstand those who are seeking to destablise our entire region: terrorists and armed groups."
The force set up by Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Niger is due to being operations later this month, but a question mark remains over its funding.
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The villagers of Tafi Atome, in Ghana's Volta Region, grew up listening to tales of their spiritual links to the 1,000 or so mona monkeys that inhabit the surrounding lush forest. But they have also turned that reverence into revenue, by making the cheeky primates part of an eco-tourist attraction that benefits both animals and locals alike. Francis Acquaye, the manager of the Tafi Atome ... read more
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