WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) - The Yemeni government has expressed concern to the United States over a U.S. commando raid targeting al Qaeda militants which killed several civilians, but it stopped short of revoking permission for future operations.
The nighttime raid in southern al-Bayda province, approved by new U.S. President Donald Trump, resulted in a gun battle that left one Navy SEAL dead and an American aircraft a charred wreck. Local medics said several women and children were killed.
“We have not withdrawn our permission for the United States to carry out special operations ground missions. However, we made clear our reservations about the last operation,” a senior Yemeni official told Reuters.
“We said that in the future there needs to be more coordination with Yemeni authorities before any operation and that there needs to be consideration for our sovereignty,” he added. The account was confirmed by another Yemeni official.
U.S. defense officials said they were investigating the reports of civilian casualties in the raid. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said on Tuesday the operation was aimed at gathering intelligence and was “highly successful”.
The senior Yemeni official told Reuters that Yemeni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi had met with the U.S. ambassador to Yemen and “made clear his reservations about the problems with the last operation”.
The Yemeni government has supported a U.S. campaign against the country’s powerful al Qaeda branch for more than a decade.
Dozens of drone strikes, stepped up under President Barack Obama, have killed senior leaders but have also repeatedly killed civilians.
The State Department said the United States would continue working with Hadi “and his representatives to ensure that this important partnership remains solid in order to ultimately eradicate” al Qaeda and Islamic State from Yemen.
The Jan. 29 commando raid was only the second publicly acknowledged ground attack by U.S. forces in Yemen, after Obama launched a failed 2014 attempt to rescue two hostages from al Qaeda in which both were killed.
The situation is complicated by Yemen’s civil war pitting the Saudi-backed government against the Houthi movement aligned with Iran. Although the government is recognized internationally, the Houthis control many of Yemen’s main population centers including the capital Sanaa.
The operation may also have created a headache for the government not just by killing innocent people but also a local al Qaeda commander, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, who was an ally of pro-government tribes fighting the Houthis..
The deaths could alienate those armed tribes fighting for the government cause and aid al Qaeda recruitment.
“It was wrong to kill him and the children...he fought the Houthis and did not have any thought of launching attacks abroad. If the government allowed this to happen, it was a mistake,” one tribal leader from al-Bayda said.
While it is not clear whether the government approved the raid or signs off on each U.S. drone attack, a senior Yemeni security official said the attacks might continue regardless.
“The Americans have their own sources of intelligence among local informants and lower level officials so would not necessarily need the help of the government for its attacks,” the official said.
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Andrew Hay