WASHINGTON — A U.S. Special Operations commando and a CIA officer in Yemen shot and killed two armed Yemeni civilians who tried to kidnap them while the Americans were in a barber shop in the country’s capital two weeks ago, U.S. officials said today.
The two Americans were whisked out of the volatile Middle East nation within a few days of the shooting, with the blessing of the Yemeni government, two senior U.S. officials said.
News of the shootings comes at a perilous moment for the government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose collaboration with U.S. drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants is already a subject of seething resentment here. Yemenis believe, with some evidence, that the drone strikes often kill nearby civilians as well as their targets, so any indication that Hadi’s government helped conceal the killing of Yemenis by U.S. commandos could be explosive.
Violence in the country is increasing, and today militants attacked the presidential palace, apparently in retaliation for the government’s roughly 10-day offensive against al-Qaeda strongholds.
Exactly what the two Americans were doing at the time of the shooting is unclear. Some U.S. officials said they were merely getting a haircut, downplaying any suggestions that they were engaged in a clandestine operation.
Late today, both the Pentagon and CIA declined to comment on the April 24 shooting, and referred all questions to the State Department.
“We can confirm that, last month, two U.S. Embassy officers in Yemen fired their weapons after being confronted by armed individuals in an attempted kidnapping at a small commercial business in Sanaa,” a State Department spokesman, Marie Harf, said in an email response to questions from The New York Times. “Two of the armed individuals were killed. The Embassy officers are no longer in Yemen.”
A spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, Mohammed Albasha, said he was aware of the shooting but had no information about any U.S. role in the matter or his government’s response to that role. The killings were reported in the Yemeni news media in the days after the shooting but attributed to unknown gunmen.
It was unclear whether the two U.S. officers had violated embassy security protocols when they visited the barber shop, apparently alone. “Per standard procedure for any such incident involving embassy officers overseas, this matter is under review,” Harf said in the email.