SANAA, Yemen – U.S. special operations forces took part in a rescue mission that freed eight hostages held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a senior defense official said Wednesday, deepening the mystery surrounding a rare raid by American commandos in the country.
In confirming the U.S. troops’ involvement, the official did not say where the raid Tuesday took place, only saying that no American was rescued, without elaborating.
The operations, carried out joint with Yemeni security forces, comes as U.S. drone strikes still target suspected militants amid a Shiite rebel power grab in the impoverished nation.
The New York Times first reported Wednesday on the U.S. role in the operation, saying some two dozen American commandos took part. The U.S. official who discussed it with The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the secret mission.
Confusion surrounding the raid began Tuesday after Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee announced it had been carried out early that morning, without elaborating.
A security official in Yemen, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists, first said the raid targeted an al-Qaida militant hideout near the al-Annad military air base in Yemen’s southern Lahj province. Al-Annad base is where American and European military advisers help Yemen battle the country’s local al-Qaida branch through drone strikes and logistical support.
The security official said an expatriate freed in the raid worked as a military adviser at the base, and that militants with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the group, launched previous failed attacks on the facility. He said seven Yemeni soldiers also were freed.
Late Tuesday, the Supreme Security Committee issued a second statement saying the raid instead took place in the country’s eastern Hadramawt province and those freed included six Yemenis, one Saudi and one Ethiopian national. The security official that earlier talked to the AP said Wednesday he based his account on intelligence Yemeni authorities gathered suggesting that al-Qaida militants planned to attack the al-Annad base with a car bomb and then storm the facility.
The committee added that Yemeni soldiers during the raid killed seven suspected militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by the U.S. to be the world’s most dangerous branch of the terror group as it has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.
It’s unclear why U.S. special operations forces were involved in raid in Yemen. Such operations in foreign countries are rare.
In recent months, U.S. special operations forces did deploy into Syria in a failed mission to rescue American hostages held by the extremist Islamic State group after it began beheading journalists and aid workers on camera. There hasn’t been a report of an American held by the al-Qaida group in Yemen.
Yemen has seen foreigners and Yemenis targeted in kidnap attempts, either for ransom, political reasons or over suspicions victims worked as spies helping Americans carry out the drone strikes.
The U.S. drone strikes, targeting suspected militant gatherings, have become increasingly unpopular in Yemen due to civilian casualties, legitimizing for many the attacks on American interests. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been closed several times recently over militant threats.