Yemenis Say American Moved Days Before Special Ops Mission to Free Hostages in Yemen

PHOTO: Yemeni troops take part in an offensive against extremists in the southern province of Shabwa on May 7, 2014. PlaySTR/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH US Rescue Mission: U.S. Shootout Frees 8 Hostages

A team of U.S. special operations forces rescued eight hostages being held in a cave by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in a remote part of northern Yemen on Tuesday. But a Yemeni official said five other hostages including an American journalist who were also a focus of the raid had been moved elsewhere just days before the rescue mission was launched.

A U.S. official confirmed that about two dozen U.S. special operations forces and a team of Yemeni counterterrorism troops conducted a raid early Tuesday morning near the border with Saudi Arabia that rescued six Yemenis, a Saudi and an Ethiopian. It was unclear how long the hostages had been held by the al Qaeda affiliate.

Another U.S. official told ABC News that elements of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team Six participated in the raid. SEAL Team Six is the elite special operations unit involved in high-risk missions including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

The U.S. official said the special operations team was inserted into the remote border region by helicopter then made its way to a cave where the hostages were rescued after a firefight that killed seven al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters. The teams then evacuated the area by helicopter.

On Tuesday, the Yemeni government confirmed the raid in Hadhramaut Province but said only Yemeni counterterrorism forces had participated. The U.S. participation in the rescue was first reported by The New York Times.

However, an updated Yemeni military account of the raid said that according to one of the rescued hostages the American and four other hostages, including a South African and a Briton, had been moved from the cave two days before the raid.

The description of the raid was related by a Yemeni soldier, who participated in the raid, to the website September 26 that is routinely used by the Yemeni Defense Ministry to provide details about its military operations. The narrative by the counterterrorism soldier, who identified himself as Abu Marouf, provided details about how the raid was conducted, but made no mention of the participation of U.S. military forces.

The Pentagon did not comment on the Yemeni detail that an American hostage was a focus of the raid.

Pentagon spokesmen have referred questions about the raid to the Yemeni government. “We continue to support Yemeni counterterrorism efforts and would refer you to them to talk to any operations,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday.

For several years, the U.S. military’s elite Joint Special Operations Command has conducted drone strikes against AQAP targets inside Yemen.

This raid could be the first known instance where American forces have conducted a ground raid inside Yemen.

The Yemeni government has authorized the American military drone strikes, though it has painted them as airstrikes conducted by Yemen’s air force.

Yemen has been beset in recent months by sectarian battles, as a Shiite rebel group from northern Yemen known as the Houthi has battled the Yemeni government for more autonomy. The group has taken over parts of the capital of Sanaa and attempted to recapture territory in the southern part of the country controlled by AQAP.

The violence in the capital has led to the occasional downsizing of U.S. embassy personnel in Sanaa.