WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) - Yemen said on Wednesday it had not suspended counter-terrorism operations with the U.S. government, despite controversy over a U.S. commando raid on al Qaeda militants in which several civilians were also killed.
The raid in 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.
Yemeni officials told Reuters that Sanaa had not withdrawn its permission for the United States to carry out special operations ground missions but had made clear their “reservations” about the last operation.
A statement by the Yemeni embassy in Washington said the government “stresses that it has not suspended any programs with regards to counterterrorism operations in Yemen with the United States Government”.
The Yemeni government “reiterates its firm position that any counterterrorism operations carried out in Yemen should continue to be in consultation with Yemeni authorities and have precautionary measures to prevent civilian casualties.”
Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi has met with the U.S. ambassador to Yemen and “made clear his reservations about the problems with the last operation,” a senior Yemeni official told Reuters.
U.S. defense officials said they were investigating the reports of civilian casualties in the raid. U.S. Senator John McCain criticized the operation, telling NBC news on Tuesday:
“When you lose a $75 million airplane and, more importantly, an American life is lost … I don’t believe you can call it a success.”
But White House spokesman Sean Spicer defended the operation on Wednesday, calling it “absolutely a success.”
“I think anybody who undermines the success of that raid, owes an apology and disservice to the life of Chief Owens,” Spicer said, referring to the Navy SEAL who died.
The Yemeni government has supported a U.S. campaign against the country’s powerful al Qaeda branch for more than a decade.
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.
U.S. military officials told Reuters last week that the recent operation went ahead without sufficient intelligence, ground support or adequate backup preparations.
As a result, three officials said, the attacking SEAL team found itself dropping onto a reinforced al Qaeda base defended by landmines, snipers, and a larger than expected contingent of heavily armed Islamist extremists.
But the U.S. military’s Central Command said last week that it only asks for operations it believes have a good chance of success based on its planning.
A White House official has said the operation was thoroughly vetted by the previous administration and that the previous defense secretary had signed off on it in January.
The situation in Yemen is complicated by a 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 U.S. 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.
More than a dozen al Qaeda members were also killed, the Pentagon said.
Additional reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alistair Bell