WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Thursday the military is investigating the deaths of four American soldiers in Niger earlier this month at the hands of Islamic jihadists.
Mattis told reporters "a full investigation is underway" into the incident, as is the case any time a U.S. service member is killed, and the military would release any new information it receives in a timely fashion.
"We, in the Department of Defense, like to know what we’re talking about before we talk," Mattis said. "We do not have all the accurate information yet. We will release it as rapidly as we get it."
The Islamic State militants ambushed U.S. and Nigerien forces during an Oct. 4 firefight that also killed four of Niger's security personnel.
U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as Green Berets, had just completed a meeting with local leaders and were walking back to their vehicles when they were attacked, according to a U.S. official, who spoke to VOA on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
The soldiers said the meeting ran late, and some suspected that the villagers were intentionally delaying their departure, the official said.
Joint Staff Director Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie on Thursday defended the military against critical questions about why the body of Sergeant La David Johnson, one of the U.S. service members killed in the attack, was recovered nearly 48 hours after the bodies of his fellow Green Berets.
"We didn't leave him behind," McKenzie said, answering a reporter's question. "We searched until we found him, and we brought him home."
Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters in that briefing that the two service members injured in the attack were evacuated to the U.S. military medical center in Landstuhl, Germany, and are receiving treatment.
White said she could not provide more information on the attack yet.
"We will not be rushed, because we have to be right," she said. Yet, she promised that when the investigation into the matter is finished, the United States Africa Command, known as Africom, will "be as transparent as possible" about the details.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have criticized the administration of Donald Trump for not being forthcoming with information related to the attack. Senator John McCain, a frequent Trump critic, even threatened to issue a subpoena to get more information about the attack.
"It may require a subpoena, but I did have a good conversation with [National Security Adviser] Gen. [H.R.] McMaster, and they said that they would be briefing us," McCain said. "We have a long friendship, and we'll hopefully get all the details."
Mattis, speaking to reporters Thursday, said it’s important not to "confuse your need for accurate information with our ability to provide it immediately in a situation like this."