SANAA, Yemen — U.S. special operations forces took part in a rescue mission that freed eight hostages held by al-Qaida militants in Yemen, a senior defense official said Wednesday, deepening the mystery surrounding a rare raid by American commandos in the country.
In confirming the U.S. troops' involvement, the official said no American was rescued, without elaborating. Yemeni officials said that the operation took place in a vast deserted area dotted with dunes called Hagr al-Saiaar, an al-Qaida safe haven where local tribes offer them protection near the Saudi border.
The operations, carried out joint with Yemeni security forces, come as U.S. drone strikes still target suspected militants amid a Shiite rebel power grab in the impoverished nation and fierce battles between al-Qaida and Shiite rebels.
The New York Times first reported Wednesday on the U.S. role in the operation, saying some two dozen American commandos took part. The U.S. official who discussed it with The Associated Press spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss the secret mission.
Confusion surrounding the raid began Tuesday after Yemen's Supreme Security Committee announced it had been carried out early that morning, without elaborating.
A security official in Yemen first said the raid targeted an al-Qaida militant hideout near the al-Annad military air base in Yemen's southern Lahj province. Al-Annad base is where American and European military advisers help Yemen battle the country's local al-Qaida branch through drone strikes and logistical support.
The security official said an expatriate freed in the raid worked as a military adviser at the base, and that militants with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of the group, launched previous failed attacks on the facility. He said seven Yemeni soldiers also were freed.
Late Tuesday, the Supreme Security Committee issued a second statement saying the raid instead took place in the country's eastern Hadramawt province and those freed included six Yemenis, one Saudi and one Ethiopian national. The security official that earlier talked to the AP said Wednesday he based his account on intelligence Yemeni authorities gathered suggesting that al-Qaida militants planned to attack the al-Annad base with a car bomb and then storm the facility.
The committee added that Yemeni soldiers during the raid killed seven suspected militants from al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, considered by the U.S. to be the world's most dangerous branch of the terror group as it has been linked to several failed attacks on the U.S. homeland.
It's unclear why U.S. special operations forces were involved in the Yemen raid. Such operations in foreign countries are rare.
The site shed light on the riskiness surrounding the operation. Other Yemeni officials said that one of the main tribes in the area is led by the well-off Waqash al-Saiaari, who gave shelter to the militants. They say al-Qaida set up large training camps in the area.
Members of al-Qaida affiliates from this area were recently arrested while trying to flee the country after alleged involvement in the beheading of 16 Yemeni soldiers in August.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
In recent months, U.S. special operations forces did deploy into Syria in a failed mission to rescue American hostages held by the extremist Islamic State group after it began beheading journalists and aid workers on camera. There hasn't been a report of an American held by the al-Qaida group in Yemen.
Yemen has seen foreigners and Yemenis targeted in kidnap attempts, either for ransom, political reasons or over suspicions victims worked as spies helping Americans carry out the drone strikes.
The U.S. drone strikes, targeting suspected militant gatherings, have become increasingly unpopular in Yemen due to civilian casualties, legitimizing for many the attacks on American interests. The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa has been closed several times recently over militant threats.
Burns reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Jon Gambrell in Cairo contributed to this report.