WASHINGTON (AP) — An American soldier killed in an ambush in Niger with three comrades but recovered days later wasn't captured alive by the enemy or executed at close range, The Associated Press has learned, based on the conclusion of a military investigation.
Dispelling a swirl of rumors about how Sgt. La David T. Johnson, 25, of Miami Gardens, Florida, died, the report has determined that he was killed by enemy rifle and machine gun fire as he fled the attack by an offshoot of the Islamic State group about 120 miles north of Niamey, the capital of the African country.
The attack took place Oct. 4. Johnson's body was recovered two days later.
U.S. officials familiar with the findings spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to describe details of an investigation that has not been completed or publicly released.
A 12-member Army special forces unit was accompanying 30 Nigerien forces when they were attacked in a densely wooded area by about 50 militants traveling by vehicle and carrying small arms and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The officials familiar with the investigation said Johnson was hit up to 18 times from a distance by a volley of machine gun rounds, and that he was returning fire as he and two Nigerien soldiers tried to escape.
Four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien troops were killed in the ambush. Two U.S. and eight Nigerien troops were wounded.
The bodies of three U.S. Green Berets were located on the day of the attack, but not Johnson's remains. The gap in time led to questions about whether Johnson was killed in the assault and not found, or if he was taken away by the enemy.
According to the officials, a medical examination concluded that Johnson was hit by fire from M-4 rifles — probably stolen by the insurgents — and Soviet-made heavy machine guns. It is believed he died in the attack.
The officials said Johnson was found under thick scrub brush where he tried to take cover. There were no indications he was shot at close range, or had been bound or taken prisoner, as several media reports have suggested.
The officials familiar with the report's conclusions said that during the attack, Johnson and two Nigerien soldiers tried to get to a vehicle to escape, but were unable to do so, became separated from the others and were shot as they were running for safety.
The report concluded that Johnson, who was athletic and a runner, was in the lead and got the farthest away, seeking cover in the brush. Officials said there were a number of enemy shells around Johnson, and evidence that he appeared to fight to the end.
His boots and other equipment were later stolen, but he was still wearing his uniform.