Pentagon probing reports of civilian deaths in Yemen raid
By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 30, 2017
WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is assessing reports out of Yemen that the special operations raid that U.S. troops conducted over the weekend against an al-Qaida target killed more than a dozen civilians, a Defense Department spokesman said Monday.
The U.S. raid on a compound controlled by al-Qaida’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate, which has expanded its territory in Yemen amid a two-year civil war between rival factions, led to the deaths of at least 14 of the group’s fighters and the collection of a trove of intelligence information, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. One U.S. special operator was killed during the raid and three others were injured by enemy fire. The Pentagon has not identified the servicemembers.
“The raid yielded valuable captured materials from the site that will help us gain a deeper insight into the group’s planning, to help us prevent terrorist attacks against innocent civilians in the U.S. and our partner nations,” Davis said Monday.
It was unclear how many civilians might have been killed in the pre-dawn raid in the rural Bayda province of southwestern Yemen. A report cited on the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs' website indicated up to 16 civilians were killed. According to the Reuters news agency, Yemeni officials claimed 30 civilians were killed, including 10 women and three children.
Davis confirmed women were among the dead in the incident, but he said they were clearly trained combatants who opened fire on the U.S. troops.
“There were a lot of female combatants that were part of this,” he said. “We saw during this operation as it was taking place that female fighters ran to pre-established positions as though they had trained to be ready. … Take reports of female casualties with a grain of salt. Not all female casualties are civilian casualties.”
The Pentagon is aware of the allegations that children were among the casualties, Davis said.
The U.S. military typically conducts an initial investigation into any reports of civilian casualties. If it finds there is evidence for supporting the claims that civilians were killed or injured, it will launch an official command investigation.
The raid followed at least three airstrikes conducted in Bayda province since President Donald Trump was sworn into office Jan. 20. Davis said the operation had been planned for several months, and did not indicate any shift in strategy against al-Qaida in Yemen from the Barack Obama administration, which typically favored drone strikes over boots-on-the-ground operations.
“The previous president was aware of it, and there were operational reasons for why it happened when it did and not, say, two weeks ago,” Davis said. “It’s a reflection of the maturation of our enemy more than anything else. They have moved into positions [in Yemen] that are more comfortable and – seemingly to them – hospitable, where they can continue to move forward with [terrorism] plans.”
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has conducted terrorist attacks against western targets in the past, most notably the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo publication in Paris that left 12 people dead and 11 more injured.
Three additional U.S. troops were injured in Yemen in a related incident. The servicemembers were hurt when an MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft made a “hard landing” at a nearby staging area where they were preparing to evacuate troops involved in the raid. Initially, the Pentagon reported only one servicemember had been injured in the landing that left the aircraft inoperable. Davis did not provide specific information about the injuries.
The Osprey was intentionally destroyed on the ground by a U.S. airstrike after troops determined it was unable to be flown out of the area, Davis said.