U.S. ground troops battle al Qaeda in Yemen, residents say

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[March 03, 2017]  By Mohammed Mukhashaf

ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Residents in Yemen said U.S. soldiers fought two separate gun battles with al Qaeda militants overnight on Friday, supported by heavy aerial bombardment.

If confirmed, it would be the first time Washington has deployed ground troops in the country since a Navy Seal was killed in a similar operation on Jan. 29, the first of its kind authorized by President Donald Trump.

A day after U.S. forces carried out more than 20 air strikes in the area, troops descended on the Wadi Yashbum village in the southern Shabwah province and engaged suspected al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants for nearly half an hour, the residents said.

One of the targets in the raid, shortly after midnight, was the home of Saad Atef, an al Qaeda leader in the area.

The assault included about 10 to 15 air strikes, some of which hit civilian homes, and a number of civilians were among the wounded, residents said.

About three hours later, residents in the Jabal Mugan area of neighboring Abyan province reported air strikes and gun battles between suspected al Qaeda fighters and U.S. soldiers that also lasted about half an hour.

There was no immediate comment from Washington.

The Pentagon has confirmed it conducted Thursday's air strikes. Residents and local officials said at least nine suspected al Qaeda militants were killed.

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The strikes come a month after U.S. commandos carried out a Jan. 29 raid against AQAP, an operation that resulted in the death of 14 militants and a Navy SEAL, as well as civilians.

The White House has said the mission yielded valuable intelligence, but critics questioned its value and effectiveness.

AQAP has been a persistent concern to the U.S. 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 where the Iran-aligned Houthis are fighting the government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which is backed by U.S.-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 five, on the brink of starvation, U.N. officials say.

The Saudi-led coalition, which benefits from U.S. 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.

(Writing by Katie Paul; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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