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Second U.S. military team was in vicinity of Niger ambush - Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Thursday there was a second U.S. military team in the vicinity of an ambush in Niger earlier this month that killed four U.S. soldiers.

The ambush, which U.S. officials believe was carried out by a local Islamic State affiliate, has thrown a spotlight on the U.S. counter-terrorism mission in the West African country.

“There are other teams that operate in Niger, there was one that had something to do with this operation,” said Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, joint staff director.

“It is involved in the timeline and we just want to make sure that we have the opportunity to get it right and understand the totality of it before we bring it forward,” he said.

While McKenzie did not provide any further details on the second team, U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said the team was tasked with grabbing a militant in the area.

The team that was attacked in the ambush was made up of a dozen U.S. soldiers who were accompanying 30 Nigerien forces on a reconnaissance mission near the village of Tongo Tongo.

President Donald Trump’s handling of condolence messages to the families of the dead U.S. soldiers has been criticized by lawmakers in Washington and has raised the profile of the deadly incident.

A number of key questions still remain unanswered about the ambush, including why it took the soldiers an hour to call for help. U.S. say officials say there is suspicion that local villagers may have played a role in tipping of the militants.

When asked that question, McKenzie said he did not know the answer but it could have potentially been because the team assessed the situation was not significant enough to call for help or the firefight was so intense they were unable to reach their communications equipment.

Senior Pentagon officials briefed lawmakers behind closed doors on Thursday about Niger.

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Alistair Bell