Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at the Pentagon on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Senior Pentagon officials on Thursday defended the small team of American troops targeted in a deadly ambush earlier this month in Africa, an incident that has raised questions about why a slain soldier was not recovered for two days.

The Oct. 4 operation in Niger, now under U.S. military investigation, resulted in the deaths of four Special Forces soldiers. One was Sgt. La David Johnson, whose remains were not located until Oct. 6.

It’s highly unusual for that much time to pass before a slain soldier is recovered. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis suggested there were extenuating circumstances at play.

[The private life of Sgt. La David Johnson, the slain soldier ensnared in a Trump controversy]

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

The case has become increasingly sensitive because of a dispute between President Trump and Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), who accused the commander in chief of making Johnson’s wife, Myeshia, cry in a phone call Tuesday evening, the day Johnson’s remains were returned to his home state of Florida. Wilson accused Trump of saying the soldier “must have known what he signed up for,” which Trump has vehemently denied.

Johnson, 25, was a mechanic attached to a 3rd Special Forces Group team that was partnered with Nigerien forces. They unexpectedly came under attack during a morning operation that also killed Staff Sgt. Bryan C. Black, 35, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, and Staff Sgt. Dustin M. Wright, 29.

[John Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff whose son died in combat, defends president’s call to Gold Star widow]

In a separate news briefing Thursday, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., said it is a “myth” that U.S. troops ever stopped searching for Johnson, who was recovered after local Nigeriens spotted his remains and reported the discovery to authorities. After the ambush, additional military assets were devoted to finding Johnson, McKenzie said. 

He declined to provide further details.

“A lot of men and a lot of women searched very hard to find him, and it took us a little while to do that,” said McKenzie, director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff. “But we didn’t leave him behind, and we searched until we finally found him and we brought him home.”

McKenzie declined to say how Johnson became separated from the rest of his unit. The situation was complicated by an ongoing firefight, he added.

“More details will come out as the investigation proceeds,” he said. “We never left the battlefield, and we never stopped looking for him.”

The general declined to describe specifics of the search, citing the sensitivity of personnel-recovery operations. But either American, French or Nigerien troops, “and in some cases all three at the same time,” were actively involved, he said.

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