By AHMED AL-HAJ and LOLITA C. BALDOR
SANAA, Yemen (AP) — U.S. forces carried out more than 20 airstrikes against al-Qaida in Yemen on Thursday, killing at least seven militants in the largest operation since a ground raid a month ago that left a Navy SEAL and more than two dozen Yemenis dead.
The strikes targeted al-Qaida positions, weapons systems and equipment in a remote and mountainous area in central Yemen.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the strikes were aimed at degrading the group’s ability to “coordinate external terror attacks” and to limit its use of Yemen as a “safe space for terror plotting.”
Yemeni security officials told The Associated Press that U.S. jets and drones targeted at least six districts where the provinces of Bayda, Shabwa and Abyan meet. An official said the strikes killed seven al-Qaida militants in Shabwa and Abyan.
The pre-dawn attack shook houses and awoke sleeping residents, many of whom fled in fear, as smoke billowed into the sky and explosions lit up the horizon, according to local tribal leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Al-Qaida issued a statement claiming that local fighters foiled a U.S. ground raid in the southern province of Abyan. It said U.S. naval vessels launched a wave of random shelling to provide cover for the forces to pull out.
Several U.S. officials flatly denied that the U.S. participated in any ground raid in Yemen. They said U.S. airstrikes targeted al-Qaida artillery and other sites, and that no U.S. Navy ships participated in the mission.
None of the officials were authorized to discuss the matter publicly, so they spoke on condition of anonymity.
Thursday’s airstrikes came a month after U.S. special operations forces carried out a raid in Bayda in which a Navy SEAL was killed, six American soldiers were wounded and a military aircraft suffered a hard landing and had to be destroyed.
The attack was launched just days after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. The administration and senior military officials have said the raid yielded valuable intelligence on the group.
Survivors and witnesses said at least 25 Yemenis were killed in the attack, including 10 children and nine women, sparking outrage in Yemen and prompting the government to ask Washington for a review of the Jan. 29 assault.
One U.S. official said Thursday’s airstrikes had been planned for weeks, and were being discussed before the deadly January raid.
Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the Yemen affiliate is known, has long been seen as the global network’s most dangerous branch, and has been implicated in a number of attempted attacks on the U.S. homeland.
The group has recently exploited the chaos of Yemen’s civil war, which pits Shiite Houthi rebels and allied army units against a Saudi-led coalition battling to restore the internationally recognized government.
The United States has been waging an air campaign against al-Qaida in Yemen for well over a decade, and has killed a number of senior militants in drone strikes, most recently in 2015, when the group’s top leader was killed in the southern city of Mukalla.