A MQ-9 Reaper lands on an air field in Afghanistan.

A MQ-9 Reaper lands on an air field in Afghanistan. (Brian Ferguson/U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – An American MQ-9 Reaper drone was shot down Sunday in western Yemen, the Pentagon said, where a civil war between Saudi Arabia-backed government forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels has raged for nearly three years.

The Pentagon has launched an investigation into the incident, Marine Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman, said Monday. He declined to provide additional information, including who had shot down the aircraft or what mission the drone was supporting at the time.

The MQ-9 is an armed, multi-mission drone that is typically used by the Air Force to conduct airstrikes. It is also used for surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

The United States provides support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, including in-air refueling operations and intelligence-sharing to back its war with the Houthis. Rankine-Galloway declined to say whether the United States flies drones in Yemen to collect intelligence on the Houthis. It does fly MQ-9s in Yemen to target al-Qaida fighters, who have taken advantage of the civil war to capture territory to train militants and plan terrorist operations, he said.

Reporting from the Middle East indicated the Houthis had claimed responsibility for shooting down the American drone near Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. The rebel group, which controls Sanaa and much of northern Yemen, claimed it used air defense systems to strike the drone, the group’s news agency SABA reported.

U.S. officials have characterized the conflict in Yemen as a stalemate between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis. The officials have said the Houthis, a Shiite rebel group, are armed by Iran through an illegal smuggling operation and those weapons have been used to target American forces, including a Navy destroyer off Yemen’s coast about one year ago.

The war has caused a humanitarian disaster in Yemen, including a widespread cholera outbreak, according to monitoring groups. The United Nations reports some 10,000 people have been killed and nearly 3 million people have been forced from their homes. According to the International Rescue Committee about two-thirds of Yemen’s nearly 26 million people are in danger of starvation. Twitter: @CDicksteinDC

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Corey Dickstein covers the military in the U.S. southeast. He joined the Stars and Stripes staff in 2015 and covered the Pentagon for more than five years. He previously covered the military for the Savannah Morning News in Georgia. Dickstein holds a journalism degree from Georgia College & State University and has been recognized with several national and regional awards for his reporting and photography. He is based in Atlanta.

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