A MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., on Oct. 19, 2023.

A MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., on Oct. 19, 2023. (Victoria Nuzzi/Air Force)

WASHINGTON – The U.S. military is flying drones over the Gaza Strip to help search for hostages being held captive by Hamas militants, the Pentagon said Friday.

“In support of hostage recovery efforts, the U.S. is conducting unarmed [drone] flights over Gaza, as well as providing advice and assistance to support our Israeli partner as they work on their hostage recovery efforts,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s top spokesman. “These [drone] flights began after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.”

During the surprise attack, Hamas militants abducted more than 200 hostages, including Americans, Israelis and other foreign nationals. Hundreds of people were killed in the coordinated attacks, which prompted Israel to launch retaliatory airstrikes and send troops into Gaza, a Palestinian enclave controlled by Hamas. The United States has supplied military aid to Israel and is assisting in efforts to locate the hostages.

The Pentagon did not say what type of drones U.S. forces are flying over Gaza, but The New York Times identified them as MQ-9 Reapers, which can fly themselves or by remote control and can carry various weapons such as the AGM-114 Hellfire missile.

Friday was the first time that the Pentagon confirmed using drones over Gaza, a small and heavily populated strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea southwest of Israel. The territory is about 140 square miles – roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. – and is home to more than two million people.

So far, only a few hostages have been returned, including an Israeli-American woman and her adult daughter. Hamas claims several hostages were killed this week in an Israeli airstrike on a Gaza refugee camp, but some Western leaders, including President Joe Biden, have been skeptical of the militant group’s credibility. Hamas is officially designated by the United States as a terrorist organization.

Biden has said his administration has spoken with families of the remaining American hostages and has vowed to do everything possible to secure their release. Qatar has been acting as an intermediary in the hostage negotiations and Egypt said Thursday that it is helping evacuate thousands of foreigners from Gaza. The White House has said dozens of Americans have already escaped from Gaza to Egypt.

“So far, 74 U.S. citizens and family members arrived on the Egyptian side. That’s in addition to the five Americans who departed Gaza yesterday,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.

The U.S. efforts to help find hostages come amid growing calls for more humanitarian aid in Gaza, where it is believed tens of thousands of civilians have been killed or injured by Israeli airstrikes in the past few weeks. U.S. officials have called for a pause in the fighting to move aid into Gaza and people out.

“We do not support a ceasefire that gives time for Hamas to regroup,” Ryder said. “[We do] support humanitarian pauses to enable humanitarian aid to get in or hostages to get out.”

In recent days, the Pentagon has moved an additional 1,200 troops to the Middle East for three main objectives – supporting Israel, deterring others from escalating the conflict and protecting other American forces in the region. Since the Israel-Hamas conflict began, tensions have continued to flare across the region. U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria are repeatedly being targeted by militant groups backed by Iran.

The Pentagon said Friday that there have now been 29 separate attacks, 17 in Iraq and 12 in Syria. That’s an increase of nine in the past week. The most recent attack occurred in northern Iraq on Thursday, a Defense Department spokesperson said. The Pentagon has said Iran bears the ultimate responsibility for the attacks because they’re being carried out by Iranian proxy groups.

Despite the rising number of attacks, none have caused any serious injuries to American troops or major structural damage to the bases, officials said.

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Doug G. Ware covers the Department of Defense at the Pentagon. He has many years of experience in journalism, digital media and broadcasting and holds a degree from the University of Utah. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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