The United States carried out another wave of strikes against al Qaeda in Yemen overnight, residents and US officials said on Friday, in the latest sign of increasing US military focus on a group whose strength has grown during Yemen’s civil war.
A day after US forces initiated a campaign of air strikes in Yemen, estimated in the mid-twenties, the Pentagon confirmed several more strikes in Shabwah, Abyan and Al Bayda provinces on Friday. That would bring the two-day total to more than 30 strikes.
Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis did not rule out further strikes.
“I don’t want to telegraph future operations, but this is part of a plan to go after this very real threat and ensure they are defeated, and denied the opportunity to plan and carry out terrorist attacks from ungoverned spaces in Yemen,” Davis told a Pentagon news briefing.
Residents reported a US assault in Wadi Yashbum village in the southern Shabwah province and said some of the strikes hit civilian homes, wounding an unknown number of civilians.
About three hours later, residents in the Jabal Mugan area of neighbouring Abyan province also reported air strikes. Residents also cited ground battles involving American soldiers and al Qaeda militants but the Pentagon formally denied any US raids or combat on the ground.
“I know there have been reports of firefights, raids. There have not been any that US forces have been involved in, not since the one you know about,” Davis said.
The United States carried out a raid in late January in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by US commandos, an operation in which 14 militants and a Navy SEAL died, as well as civilians. The White House and other senior US officials have said the mission yielded valuable intelligence but critics questioned its value and effectiveness.
Davis noted that al Qaeda, even more than Islamic State, had US blood on its hands. In 2000, al Qaeda bombers steered a boat full of explosives into the side of the USS Cole, a US Navy destroyer, while it refuelled in the Yemeni port of Aden, killing 17 US sailors and wounding about three dozen others.
AQAP has been a persistent concern to the US government since an attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 that was traced back to the militant group.
It has exploited a civil war in which the Iran-aligned Houthi movement is fighting the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by US-aligned Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Arab allies.
The war has killed more than 10,000 people and put millions of people, including half a million children under age 5, on the brink of starvation, UN officials say.
The Saudi-led coalition, which benefits from US military assistance, has focused most of its firepower against the Houthis and allied forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but has also targeted some AQAP strongholds.