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 Friday.
The two Americans, attached to the U.S. Embassy, were whisked out of the volatile Middle East nation within a few days of the shooting, with the blessing of the Yemeni government, 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 members of al-Qaida is a subject of seething resentment in Yemen. 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 problematic.
Violence in the country is increasing, and on Friday, militants attacked a checkpoint outside the presidential palace, apparently in retaliation for the government’s roughly 10-day offensive against al-Qaida 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 in a barber shop on Hadda Street in Sanaa, in an upscale district frequently visited by foreigners, downplaying any suggestions that they were engaged in a clandestine operation.
Late Friday, both the Pentagon and CIA declined to comment on the 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 spokeswoman, 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 inYemen."
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.
U.S. officials refused to identify the Americans or their jobs in Yemen, where the Pentagon and the CIA have been training Yemeni security forces in addition to carrying out the drone strikes. But a senior U.S. official said one individual involved in the shooting was a lieutenant colonel with the elite Joint Special Operations Command and the other was a CIA officer.
It was unclear whether the two U.S. officers had violated embassy security protocols when they visited the barber shop, apparently alone. In high-risk countries like Yemen and Pakistan, U.S. diplomatic personnel are often tightly restricted in where and when they can travel outside the embassy walls, and are typically accompanied by armed security personnel.
"Per standard procedure for any such incident involving embassy officers overseas, this matter is under review," Harf said in the email.
The killings have an echo of a 2011 case in which a CIA security officer, Raymond A. Davis, was jailed for weeks after killing two Pakistanis on a crowded street in Lahore. The ensuing furor brought relations between the CIA and Pakistan’s spy service to perhaps their lowest ebb since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Yemeni government is a staunch counterterrorism ally, and administration officials are no doubt seeking to avoid a replay of the 2011 debacle. "There will certainly be an investigation and one would have to assume it will be informed by what happened in Pakistan," one U.S. official said.
U.S. officials have voiced fears about the violence erupting in Yemen. The State Department announced Wednesday that it had closed its embassy in Sanaa to the public because of security concerns, citing recent attacks against Western interests in Yemen as the reason for temporarily suspending operations.
The violence came close to the president’s doorstep Friday when militants believed to be from al-Qaida’s franchise attacked a security vehicle and killed three soldiers in the area of the presidential palace. News reports said the militants had fought a prolonged gunfight in the streets of the capital before escaping.
In a second attack in the province of Al Baydha, militants believed linked to al-Qaida killed two soldiers and injuring many more in an ambush, according to officials in the area. And in a third attack the same day, armed fighters from the Abeeda tribe in the restive province of Mareb attacked security checkpoints, electricity towers as well as oil and gas pipelines, residents there said.
All of Friday’s attacks appeared to be retaliation for the Yemeni government’s campaign against al-Qaida strongholds, which follows a series of U.S. drone strikes last month that resulted in the deaths of more than three dozen militants linked to al-Qaida’s affiliate inYemen, one of the largest flurries of strikes in recent years.
As the army’s ground campaign has picked up, so have a series of attacks against Western interests. Several diplomatic outposts have pulled back or pulled out. At the U.S. Embassy, personnel are not being evacuated, but closing the facility to the public will stop the processing of visas and other services, the State Department said.
In the Yemeni news media, the involvement of U.S. commandos in the shooting has not been disclosed. The day after the shooting, the Yemeni Defense Ministry’s website reported that a foreigner living in Yemen had shot dead two gunmen who tried to abduct him.
"Two armed men tried to kidnap a foreign citizen as he was leaving a barber in Hadda Street in Sanaa," the website said. "But he was able to resist and shot them with a revolver he had in his possession," the website said, citing security sources.
The ministry gave no indication of the intended victim’s nationality or that of those who planned to kidnap him. In subsequent news reports, however, unidentified Yemeni security officials attributed the shootings to various suspects, including a well-trained U.S. citizen with a licensed weapon and a Russian specialist in the oil sector.