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US Africa Command provided backup during deadly attack in Niger

Nigerien Armed Forces conduct a convoy movement, key leader engagement and ambush exercise during Flintlock 18 in Niger, April 2018. U.S. Africa Command said it provided surveillance support earlier this week and assisted in the evacuation of Niger forces caught in a battle with Islamic militants near an army camp at the country's border with Mali.

JEREMIAH RUNSER/U.S. AFRICA COMMAND

By JOHN VANDIVER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 3, 2019

STUTTGART, Germany — U.S. Africa Command said it provided surveillance support earlier this week and assisted in the evacuation of Niger forces caught in a battle with suspected Islamic militants at an army camp near the country’s border with Mali.

The attack, which Niger authorities said killed 18 soldiers and prompted air support from France and the U.S., was the latest in a string of cross-border assaults by Islamic militants. AFRICOM said it did not launch any airstrikes during the incident, but “ISR (Intelligence, Reconnaissance and Surveillance) support was provided.”

“U.S. Africa Command also assisted Niger with contracted evacuation support,” said Becky Farmer, an AFRICOM spokeswoman, adding no U.S. forces were in the area at the time.

The U.S. military relies on contractors to assist with medical evacuations in West Africa to help fill capability gaps. The shortage of military medevac personnel has long been a point of concern for AFRICOM leadership.

While Niger has granted the U.S. permission to carry out armed drone strikes in the country — an authorization that came in the aftermath of a 2017 ambush that killed four U.S. soldiers — AFRICOM has said it uses drones exclusively for intelligence gathering.

The latest attack against Niger forces came amid warnings that various militant groups are gaining ground in the Sahel. Last week, the outgoing commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, Air Force Maj. Gen. Marcus Hicks, warned the security situation was “rapidly deteriorating.”

The region also continues to be dangerous for American troops. On June 8, U.S. military personnel escaped injury when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb while taking part in a training mission in Niger.

The attack on Monday at an army camp near Niger’s western border with Mali started when two vehicles exploded at the entrance to the camp, after which “terrorists on motorcycles opened fire,” the Niger government said in a statement published in French media.

“The counter-attack, with air support from our [French and American] partners, put the enemy on the run on the other side of the border. Clean-up operations are ongoing,” the statement said.

While the U.S. says it uses its aircraft for surveillance, France has Mirage fighters in Niger that conduct airstrikes in support of local forces.

Several enemy combatants were killed and a truck was destroyed by the air strikes, the government statement said.

At least 18 Niger soldiers were killed in the attack and four were reported missing, French media reports said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com
Twitter: @john_vandiver

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