A small team of U.S. Special Forces troops is on the ground in the midst of Yemen's civil war in support of an operation against the Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) terror group, the Pentagon said Friday.
The U.S. troops are limited to advisory and intelligence work, but they could be drawn into conflict in self-defense, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. "They certainly could be. Combat can always happen."
The U.S. team on the ground is supporting an offensive by forces of the United Arab Emirates and the ousted government of Yemeni Prime President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The partnered forces are moving against AQAP strongholds in the Shabwah governorate, Davis said.
U.S. forces have conducted scores of airstrikes in Yemen and carried out occasional ground raids since Jan. 29, when a Navy SEAL -- Chief Petty Officer William "Ryan" Owens, 36, of Peoria, Ill. -- was killed in the first military operation authorized by President Donald Trump.
Three other SEALs were wounded and a Marine MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft was destroyed in the operation.
Since Feb. 28, the U.S. has carried out at least 80 airstrikes in Yemen, including close-air support for UAE and Yemeni government forces, Davis said.
He said the U.S. had not carried out close-air support missions in the current offensive against AQAP, but he did not rule them out in the future.
Yemen's civil war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2.5 million and caused a humanitarian catastrophe and cholera epidemic in one of the world's poorest countries, according to the United Nations and human rights groups.
The war began in March 2015 when Houthi rebels, members of the Shia Zaydi sect and backed by Iran, overran the capital of Sanaa, forcing the Hadi government to flee.
Saudi Arabia then came to the aid of Hadi, forming a coalition of Arab states including Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Senegal and Sudan. The U.S. has been supplying Saudi Arabia with aerial refueling and intelligence flights.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.