NIAMEY, Niger – Four Nigerien soldiers and three U.S. army special operations commandos were killed and others were wounded in an attack by Islamic extremists on a joint patrol in Niger's southwest, officials said Thursday.
The attack Wednesday by Mali-based militants in Niger's Tillaberi region wounded eight Niger soldiers and two U.S. soldiers, according to a statement by Niger's Army Chief of Staff.
"A joint patrol of the Defense and Security Forces and American partners operating in the border area of Mali fell into an ambush set by terrorist elements aboard a dozen vehicles and about twenty motorcycles," the statement said. The deaths and injuries came "after intense fighting, during which elements of the joint force showed exemplary courage."
The statement welcomed "the constant commitment of the American partners in the fight against terrorism."
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou and the U.S. Ambassador to Niger Eunice S. Reddik met before Issoufou presided over a meeting of the National Security Council made up of senior officers and ministers.
"Our country is once again the target of a terrorist attack, with a large number of victims," Niger's president said earlier Thursday.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack about 200 kilometers (124 miles) north of Niger's capital, Niamey. However, Islamic extremist groups, including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, operate in the region and sporadically launch cross-border raids. Despite the intervention of French troops in 2013 that pushed the extremists from their strongholds in northern Mali, they continue attacks.
Boko Haram, based south in Nigeria, has also staged several attacks in Niger near its border.
U.S. Africa Command said the U.S. forces are in Niger to provide training and security assistance to the Nigerien Armed Forces in their efforts against violent extremists.
The two wounded U.S. service members were evacuated in stable condition to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, U.S. Africa Command said in its statement.
The commandos, who were Green Berets, were likely attacked by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb militants, said U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the incident publicly.
The White House said President Donald Trump was notified about the attack Wednesday night as he flew aboard Air Force One from Las Vegas to Washington.
Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad are putting together a 5,000-strong G5 Sahel force to fight the growing threat from extremists in the vast Sahel region. The first units are expected to deploy in October and all battalions should be on the ground by March 2018.
The Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution in June welcoming the deployment, but at U.S. insistence it did not include any possibility of U.N. financing for the force.
The countries have been pressing the international community to help funding and in equipping troops and ensuring their mobility and help with logistics, communications and protection in the field.
That force will operate in the region along with a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, which has become the deadliest in the world for U.N. peacekeepers, and France's 5,000-strong Barkhane military operation, its largest overseas mission.
Baldor contributed to this story from Washington, D.C. AP journalist Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.