By Mohammed Ghobari and Noah Browning
SANAA/DUBAI (Reuters) - A U.S. commando died in a dawn raid in southern Yemen on Sunday that killed around 30 people including al Qaeda suspects and civilians, the U.S. military and local Yemeni officials said.
It was the first combat casualty of the Trump administration and its first operation in the war-damaged Arabian Peninsula nation against a powerful al Qaeda branch that has been a frequent target of U.S. drone strikes.
The gunbattle in the rural Yakla district of al-Bayda province killed a senior leader in Yemen’s al Qaeda branch, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, along with other militants, al Qaeda said.
Medics at the scene said 30 people were killed, including 10 women and three children.
The U.S. military said in a statement that 14 al Qaeda militants died in the raid, which netted “information that will likely provide insight into the planning of future terror plots.”
Three U.S. commandoes were also wounded in the operation in which a military aircraft experienced a hard landing and was “intentionally destroyed in place.”
BULLET IN HER NECK
“The operation began at dawn when a drone bombed the home of Abdulraoof al-Dhahab and then helicopters flew up and unloaded paratroopers at his house and killed everyone inside,” one resident said, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Next, the gunmen opened fire at the U.S. soldiers who left the area, and the helicopters bombed the gunmen and a number of homes and led to a large number of casualties.”
A Yemeni security officer and a local official corroborated that account. Fahd, a local resident who asked that only his first name be used, said several bodies remained under debris and that houses and the local mosque were damaged in the attack.
In a message on its official Telegram account, al Qaeda mourned al-Dhahab as a “holy warrior” and other slain militants, without specifying how many of its fighters were killed.
Eight-year-old Nawar al-Awlaki - the daughter of U.S.-born Yemeni preacher and al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011 - was among the children who died in the raid, according to her grandfather.
“She was hit with a bullet in her neck and suffered for two hours. Why kill children? This is the new administration - it’s very sad, a big crime,” Nasser al-Awlaki told Reuters.
American forces have not conducted any special operations in Yemen since December 2014, months before nearly two years of civil war rendered the country even more dangerous and offered al Qaeda leeway to expand into more lawless areas.
U.S. special forces then attempted to rescue an American and a South African hostage held by al Qaeda in another part of the country. The captives were killed in the subsequent firefight.
The United States conducted dozens of drone strikes in Yemen throughout Barack Obama’s presidency to combat al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, regarded as one of the global militant group’s most dangerous branches.
The local al Qaeda unit organised the Charlie Hebdo magazine attack in Paris in 2015 and has repeatedly tried to down U.S. airliners.
(Additional reporting by Leslie Wroughton in Washington and Mohammed El Sherif in Cairo; Writing By Noah Browning; Editing by Paul Tait and Susan Fenton)