About two hours later, the firefight tapering off, French helicopters from nearby Mali swooped in to the rescue on the rolling wooded terrain. But they retrieved only seven of the 11 Americans. The four others were inexplicably left behind, no longer in radio contact and initially considered missing in action by the Pentagon, a status that officials say raises the possibility they were still alive when the helicopters took off without them.
United States officials insisted that other American, French and Nigerien forces were in the area when the helicopters lifted off. When Americans suffer casualties in an operation, the wounded are typically evacuated before the dead, officials said.
The bodies of three dead Americans and the team’s interpreter were found hours later. But American military officials still cannot explain why it took two more days and an exhaustive search by troops from all three countries to find the body of the fourth soldier, Sgt. La David T. Johnson, discovered by Nigerien troops in the woods near the ambush site.