Yemeni civilians, including children, were killed by American counterterrorism forces during an operation against al Qaeda in the country, U.S. Central Command admitted Wednesday.
The review, called for by the operational task force commander who oversaw the mission, “concluded regrettably that civilian non-combatants were likely killed in the midst of a firefight” between militants and a Navy SEAL team during a raid on a suspected al Qaeda compound in southwest Yemen, said a command statement.
“Casualties may include children,” command officials added.
The civilian casualties were the result of close-air support fire from U.S. aircraft, called in by the SEAL team after “receiving fire from all sides to include houses and other buildings” near the target area in Yemen’s al-Baydah Governorate, command officials said Wednesday.
“This complex situation included small arms fire, hand grenades and close air support fire,” officials said in a statement issued late Wednesday.
“Analysts are carefully assessing whether additional non-combatant civilians that were not visible to the assault force at the time were mixed in with combatants” and subsequently killed by U.S. forces, the statement says.
Reportedly among the dead was the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Yemeni-American cleric and spiritual leader of the Yemen cell, who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike.
Navy Chief Special Warfare Operator William “Ryan” Owens was killed and three other team members were wounded during the raid, the first counterterrorism operation ordered by the Trump administration.
Another three U.S. special operations members were wounded in the “hard landing” of a Marine Corps MV-22 helicopter carrying quick reaction forces, called in to back up the embattled SEAL team.
President Trump and his daughter Ivanka on Wednesday made an unannounced trip to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, for the arrival of Chief Petty Officer Owens’s body.
News of the civilian casualties comes amid growing consternation over the relative success of the Yemen operation.
White House and Pentagon officials have characterized the mission as a success, noting U.S. forces killed 14 al Qaeda fighters and netted valuable intelligence on the group’s Yemeni cell, known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Stressing that the White House would never characterize a military mission as 100-percent successful when U.S. lives are lost, “what we got out of this mission I believe will save lives,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.
But confirmation of civilian casualties, coupled with CPO Owens’ death, have led others to determine the costs of the operations were too high.
“Almost everything went wrong,” a senior U.S. military official told NBC News regarding the operation.
Planning for the operation had already been underway under the Obama administration, but had been delayed due to the difficulty of the mission.
“It is something that had been in the works for awhile,” Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said. “But there were operational reasons it happened when it did.”