US, Nigerien troops killed in ambush on patrol in Niger

DAKAR/BAMAKO (Reuters) - Five soldiers from Niger and three U.S. Army Special Forces troops were killed and two wounded in an ambush on a joint patrol in southwest Niger on Wednesday, according to Nigerien and U.S. officials.

The five Green Berets were attacked while on a routine patrol in an area known to have a presence of insurgents, including from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Islamic State, a U.S. official told Reuters.

It was unclear who fired on the U.S. and U.S.-backed forces, the official said. Those forces were not patrolling the area with any specific objective, such as a high-value target or rescuing a hostage, the official added.

A spokesman for U.S. Africa Command confirmed the attack after Radio France International (RFI) reported a lethal ambush near the Niger/Mali border.

"We can confirm reports that a joint U.S. and Nigerien patrol came under hostile fire in southwestNiger," said the spokesman.

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US special forces lead training mission for African militaries in Niger
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US special forces lead training mission for African militaries in Niger
A U.S. special forces soldier demonstrates how to detain a suspect during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 4, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 4, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Nigerian soldiers walk in a line during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 3, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 3, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Chadian soldiers place pieces of cloth on the ground during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 3, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 3, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Chadian soldiers run during a mock ambush during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 6, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 6, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Nigerien soldiers do push-ups during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 5, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 5, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Nigerian soldiers receive military theory training from British soldiers (not pictured) during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 3, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 3, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Nigerian soldiers sleep after a training session during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 4, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 4, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Chadian soldiers march during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 3, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 3, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A poster for Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, is seen on the door of a Nigerien military office in Diffa, March 4, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 4, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Chadian soldiers take a break during Flintlock 2014, a U.S.-led international training mission for African militaries, in Diffa, March 4, 2014. On a dusty training ground in Niger, U.S. Special Forces teach local troops to deal with suspects who resist arrest. The drill in the border town of Diffa is part of Operation Flintlock, a counter-terrorism exercise for nations on the Sahara's southern flanks that the United States organises each year. Washington's aim is to tackle Islamist militants in the Sahel region while keeping its military presence in Africa light. A growing number of European nations taking part shows their increasing concern about security in West Africa. Central to the international effort is a blossoming relationship between the United States and France, the former colonial power and traditional "policeman" of the turbulent region. Picture taken March 4, 2014. To match Analysis AFRICA-USA/SECURITY REUTERS/Joe Penney (NIGER - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
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Namatta Abubacar, an official for the region of Tillaberi in Niger, said five Nigerien soldiers were among the dead.

A Niger diplomatic source said the attackers had come from Mali and had killed several soldiers, without saying whether any of the U.S. troops stationed in the West African country were among the victims.

U.S. President Donald Trump was briefed by telephone on the attack by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly while Trump flew back on Air Force One from Las Vegas, where he had been visiting victims and first responders affected by Sunday's mass shooting.

RFI said earlier on Wednesday a counter-attack was underway.

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U.S. Green Beret soldiers throughout history
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U.S. Green Beret soldiers throughout history
U.S. Green Beret soldiers walk inside the 103rd Philippine Army Brigade camp near Isabela, capital of the southern island of Basilan, after arriving there on February 17, 2002. The Green Beret commandos flew to the island infested with Muslim guerrilas on Sunday and said although they were on a training mission, they were prepared to fight. REUTERS/Erik de Castro EDC/JD
U.S. Green Beret soldiers walk with a Philippine military officer (5th L) after arriving at the 103rd Army Brigade headquarters near Isabela, capital of the southern island of Basilan, on February 17, 2002. The Green Beret commandos flew to the island infested with Muslim guerrilas on Sunday and said although they were on a training mission, they were prepared to fight. REUTERS/Erik de Castro EDC/JD
A Philippine soldier (C) joins two American soldiers as they survey an athletic field for possible use as a landing area in Isabela on Basilan island February 17, 2002, in the southern Philippines. United States Green Beret commandos flew into Basilan, home to the Abu Sayyaf Musilm guerrila group and said although they were on a training mission, they were prepared to fight. REUTERS/Erik de Castro EDC/RCS
A U.S. Green Beret commando stands guard while colleagues alight from a MH-47 helicopter on Basilan island February 17, 2002. [United States Green Beret commandos flew into Basilan to hold training exercises with their Philippine counterparts.]
Members of the Green Berets observe a moment of silence during the Horse Soldier Monument Rededication ceremony in front the World Trade Center in New York October 19, 2012. The Green Berets were some 200 soldiers who joined the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and used horses to move about the rugged terrain much more effectively than conventional modes of transportation. The statue was erected in honor of these soldiers. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY ANIMALS ANNIVERSARY)
U.S. GREEN BERET SOLDIERS CARRY EQUIPMENT INSIDE A PHILIPPINE ARMY CAMP AFTER ARRIVING ON BASILAN ISLAND. U.S. Green Beret soldiers carry their equipment inside the 103rd Philippine Army Brigade camp near Isabela, capital of the southern island of Basilan, after arriving there on February 17, 2002. The Green Beret commandos flew to the island infested with Muslim guerrilas on Sunday and said although they were on a training mission, they were prepared to fight. REUTERS/Erik de Castro
A detachment of 1st Special Forces Group Green Berets from Ft. Lewis, Washington carry the flag draped coffin of Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman during burial services at Tahoma National Cemetery in Covington, Washington, January 11, 2002. Chapman was the first American killed by direct enemy fire in Afghanistan.
A U.S. Green Beret soldier takes cover as he helps secure the perimetre around where his colleagues were landing at the 103rd Army Brigade headquarters near Isabela, capital of the southern island of Basilan, on February 17, 2002. The Green Beret commandos flew to the island infested with Muslim guerrilas on Sunday and said although they were on a training mission, they were prepared to fight. REUTERS/Erik de Castro EDC/JD
MARBLEHEAD, MA - JUNE 27: U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers carry the casket of their fallen comrade, Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Piper June 27, 2005 during his funeral procession in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Piper, a special forces soldier, was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan earlier this month. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
TALOQUAN, NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 28: U.S. Army Special Forces soldier nicknamed 'Cowboy' and others secure an airstrip during an operation August 28, 2002 in the town of Taloquan in Northern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have recently begun to step up their presence in Northern Afghanistan to more aggressively pursue possible al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives they believe to be operating in the region. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 26: Spent cartridges fly as U.S. Army Special Forces soldier nicknamed 'Bones' practices his marksmanship with an M-4 automatic rifle at a range near the town of Kunduz August 26, 2002 in Northern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have recently begun to step up their presence in Northern Afghanistan to more aggressively pursue possible al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives they believe to be operating in the region. The horseback patrols are an invaluable tool for the soldiers, allowing them to patrol narrow streets or alleys as well as other terrain that would otherwise be inaccessable by truck. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
KUNDUZ, NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 26: U.S. Army Special Forces soldier nicknamed 'Mike' (R) raises his arms in celebration after gunning down a target with his side arm while on a target range near the town of Kunduz August 26, 2002 in Northern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have recently begun to step up their presence in Northern Afghanistan to more aggressively pursue possible al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives they believe to be operating in the region. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
TALOQUAN, NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN - AUGUST 28: U.S. Army Special Forces helicopters land on an airstrip during an operation August 28, 2002 in the town of Taloquan in Northern Afghanistan. U.S. Special Forces have recently begun to step up their presence in Northern Afghanistan to more aggressively pursue possible al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives they believe to be operating in the region. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
PHILIPPINES - FEBRUARY 22: Us Special Forces In The Philippines On February 22Th, 2002 In Island Of Basilan, Philippines. On Basilan Island. The 160-Men Group Of Us Green Berets Is Complete. They Were Scattered In Different Camps Surrounding Members Of The Abu Sayyaf Islamist Group In The Southwest Jungle Near Maluso. (Photo by Patrick AVENTURIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
405876 02: U.S. Army Green Berets, acting as military advisors, talk before a ceremony at a military academy May 27, 2002 in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The U.S. Army innagurated a two-year program in an attempt to upgrade the Georgian military to a force capable of taking on terrorists allegedly holed up in the former Soviet republic. (Photo by Getty Images)
405871 04: Afghan soldiers negotiate an obstacle course as part of a competition at an Afghan National Army (ANA) training facility May 27, 2002 in Kabul, Afghanistan. U.S. Army Green Berets are currently conducting a ten week training course for the Afghan Army in the hope that a better trained military will mean a more stable Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
405871 01: An unidentified U.S. Army Green Beret from the 3rd Special Forces Group from Fort Bragg, NC watches as Afghan soldiers do pushups as part of a competition at an Afghan National Army (ANA) training facility May 27, 2002 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Green Berets are currently conducting a ten week training course for the Afghan Army in the hope that a better trained military will mean a more stable Afghanistan. (Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images)
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African security forces backed by Western troops are stepping up efforts to counter jihadist groups forming part of a growing regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of the Sahel.

A relatively new militant group called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has claimed some of the attacks.

Geoff D. Porter, head of North Africa Risk Consulting, said that any confirmation of Islamic State's role in Wednesday's strike would lead to a strategic shift from Libya toward the Sahel band, stretching eastwards from Senegal to Chad.

"The emphasis ... will now shift south," he said.

The U.S. Africa Command has hundreds of soldiers deployed across the region, including at an air facility in Agadez, and offers training and support to Niger's army in aspects such as intelligence gathering and surveillance.

(Reporting by Cheick Amadou Diouara, Emma Farge, John Irish and David Lewis; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, Steve Holland, Eric Beech and Eric Walsh in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Peter Cooney)

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