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Jones demanding answers about Niger deaths

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Walter Jones

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From wire, staff reports

Saturday, October 21, 2017

U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., is joining the chorus of congressional members seeking answers about an ambush in the African nation of Niger that left four U.S. soldiers dead two weeks ago.

The White House defended the slow pace of information, saying an investigation eventually would offer clarity about a tragedy that has morphed into a political dispute in the United States, The Associated Press reported.

In a letter to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Jones, a longtime member of the House Armed Services Committee, asked for specifics on the fatal situation and the future of U.S. military personnel in Africa.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of these brave men,” Jones said. “The American people, specifically our military families, deserve to know what is going on when they send their sons and daughters to risk their lives for our country.

“What was their mission? Why were they not extracted? These are some of the questions that need to be answered,” Jones said.

The deadly ambush in Niger occurred as Islamic militants on motorcycles, toting rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns, seized on a U.S. convoy and shattered the windows of their unarmored trucks.

Killed in the attack were four men: three staff sergeants, Bryan Black, Dustin Wright and Jeremiah Johnson and Sgt. La David Johnson.

In addition to those killed, two Americans were wounded. No extremist group has claimed responsibility.

One of main unanswered questions is why it took the Army two days to recover Johnson’s body after local Nigeriens discovered him and turned him over.

In his letter, Jones questioned whether or not the military had improved its methods of extraction following the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate Benghazi, where the ambassador and three other Americans were killed.

The attack is under official military investigation, as is normal for a deadly incident.

What is abnormal, according to Sen. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the Trump administration’s slow response to requests for information. He said Thursday it may take a subpoena to shake loose more information.

“They are not forthcoming with that information,” McCain told reporters.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed back, saying it naturally takes time to verify information about a combat engagement. He promised to provide accurate information as soon as it’s available, but offered no timetable.

“The loss of our troops is under investigation,” he said. “We in the Department of Defense like to know what we’re talking about before we talk.”

Mattis did not offer details about the circumstances under which the Americans were traveling but said contact with hostile forces had been “considered unlikely.”

That would explain why the Americans, who were traveling in unarmored vehicles with Nigerien counterparts, lacked access to medical support and had no immediate air cover, although Mattis said French aircraft were called to the scene quickly. He said contract aircraft flew out the bodies of three Americans shortly after the firefight. Local Nigeriens found Johnson’s body and returned it Oct. 6.

It’s not clear why Johnson was not found with the three others Oct. 4.

Dana W. White, a spokeswoman for Mattis, said Johnson had become “separated.” Speaking at a news conference with her, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, said he knew more about what had happened to Johnson but was not willing to share it. He said U.S., Nigerien and French forces remained in the area searching for Johnson until he was found, so it would be wrong to say he was “left behind.”

Mattis said the U.S. has about 1,000 troops in that part of Africa to support a French-led mission to disrupt and destroy extremist elements. He said the U.S. provides aerial refueling, intelligence and reconnaissance support, and ground troops to engage with local leaders.

“In this specific case, contact (with hostile forces) was considered unlikely, but the reason we had U.S. Army soldiers there and not the Peace Corps, it’s because we carry guns.”

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