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Mattis meets McCain amid tension over deadly Niger ambush
By Michael Mathes
Washington (AFP) Oct 20, 2017

Pentagon chief, French minister meet amid Niger ambush questions
Washington (AFP) Oct 20, 2017 - US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis thanked his French counterpart Friday for France's assistance in the immediate aftermath of a Niger ambush that killed four US troops, as questions mounted in Washington about what happened.

French warplanes flew overhead and armed helicopters evacuated the US wounded following the October 4 attack near the Mali border, which is thought to have been carried out by jihadists.

The Pentagon chief has previously praised the less than 30-minute French response time after the attack on the joint US-Niger patrol, and officials say it shows how well the two countries' forces are working together.

But critics have pounced on the fact that it fell to France to help American troops as evidence the US military did not have adequate force-protection measures in place, and had failed in its intelligence gathering.

The ambush, which also killed four Nigerien troops, is sparking growing controversy in Washington as questions swirl about what went wrong, and after it emerged the body of one slain US soldier was not recovered for nearly two days -- and only then by a privately contracted helicopter.

"Thank you for your support and for your letter of condolences for our fallen following this attack," Mattis told French Defense Minister Florence Parly.

The French minister said she would discuss military operations in Syria after the fall of Raqa, the Iran nuclear deal and counterterrorism efforts in Africa's Sahel region.

Speaking to reporters after the visit, Parly stressed the importance of the Iran deal.

"There's no way we should leave the Vienna agreement negotiated in 2015 as long as all the conditions made of Iran are being met," she said.

During her first Washington visit, Parly also gave a speech at the Center for Strategic International Studies, in which she said letting the deal collapse would sow the seeds of future conflict and be a gift to hard liners.

The United States, which has a growing military footprint in Africa, frequently supports French operations in the Sahel -- notably with aerial refueling to French planes and exchanging intelligence with the old ally.

Parly said she had also discussed Chad, a Niger neighbor with extensive history of counterterrorism cooperation, with US officials.

Trump has placed travel restrictions on Chad citizens, saying it does not adequately share public safety and terrorism-related information and faulting the country for not providing recent examples of its passports.

"We mentioned the fact Chad is an important, effective ally engaged in this area of the Sahel and that therefore we must help Chad answer all the questions that have been posed by the US administration," Parly said.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited Congress on Friday to assure Senator John McCain that lines of communication were open, amid demands the Pentagon reveal more about a Niger ambush that killed four US servicemen.

Tempers have flared in recent weeks between President Donald Trump's administration and lawmakers frustrated about the lack of clarity regarding the clash with suspected jihadists in an area where an Islamic State group affiliate operates.

McCain, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, has repeatedly called for details from the Pentagon about the ambush, including why the body of one slain soldier was not immediately evacuated.

"I felt that we were not getting sufficient amount of information and we are clearing a lot of that up now," McCain, standing alongside Mattis at the senator's congressional office, told reporters after their closed-door meeting.

The Pentagon boss followed McCain's lead.

"We can always improve on communication, and that's exactly what we'll do," Mattis said.

The McCain-Mattis meeting came as questions mounted in US media about what happened on October 4, and criticism over Trump's handling of the aftermath.

Mattis, a former US Marine general, said Thursday that the body of Sergeant La David Johnson was "found later" by non-US forces following the ambush.

The Pentagon has initiated an investigation into the deadly encounter.

"The president, the Department of Defense, and frankly the entire country and government want to know exactly what happened," White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

"We won't rest until we get some answers," she added. "And when the time is appropriate, we'll talk about the details of the investigation."

- Unexpected -

The US military was not expecting hostile action when its troops came under attack as they conducted training operations with Nigerien forces.

It fell to French forces conducting anti-jihadist operations in the region to provide air support after the ambush.

On Thursday, Mattis made remarks about the deadly incident that signaled there were sensitivities about the circumstances.

"The US military does not leave its troops behind, and I would just ask that you not question the actions of the troops who were caught in the firefight and question whether or not they did everything they could in order to bring everyone out at once," Mattis said.

Trump has faced criticism for not immediately publicly addressing the attack, then falsely claiming Barack Obama and other former US leaders did not call the families of fallen soldiers.

The attack came less than a month after Trump placed travel restrictions on citizens from Chad, a Niger neighbor with extensive history of counterterrorism cooperation, entering the United States.

At the time of the ambush, Chad was in the midst of a monthslong withdrawal of hundreds of its troops from Niger, where they were part of the coalition fighting Boko Haram extremists.

IS 'death spiral' most dangerous part of fight for US coalition
(UPI) Oct 17, 2017
Experts on the Middle East, terrorism and the Islamic State say that while the terrorist organization is in a "death spiral," the U.S.-led coalition battling the group is likely entering its most dangerous phase. The early signs of victory are beginning to circulate as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias, drive IS out of its proclaimed capi ... read more

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