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Yemen reviews deadly U.S. raid on al-Qaeda, but stops short of issuing ban

Greek special forces and U.S. Navy SEALs clear a stairwell during Sarisa 16, an annual Greek exercise, near Thessaloniki, Greece, Sept. 21, 2016. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl)

Yemen’s top diplomat said the country has called for a “reassessment” of a Jan. 28 raid that left multiple civilians and a U.S. service member dead, but Yemen did not issue an outright ban on future American-led missions, a report said Wednesday.

The statement by Yemen’s foreign minister, Abdul-Malik al-Mekhlafi, according to the Associated Press, followed a report in the New York Times that Yemen had revoked permissions for the United States to continue ground counterterrorism operations in the country, a base for one of al-Qaeda’s most dangerous affiliates.

Mekhlafi told the AP that “Yemen continues to cooperate with the United States and continues to abide by all the agreements.” He added, however, that the Yemeni government “is involved in talks with the U.S. administration on the latest raid.”

“It’s not true what’s being said,” said a senior Yemeni official in Aden, referring to the reports of a Yemeni ban on U.S. commando operations. The official spoke by phone from Aden where the internationally recognized government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is based.

“We and the international community are working side-by-side to fight terrorism,” he said

The potential ban was first reported by the New York Times.

If the Yemeni government moves to restrict U.S.-led missions in the country, it would mark a significant setback for the Trump administration, as it has quietly readied plans to expand and accelerate operations in Yemen in an effort to curb the growth of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The plans, an outgrowth of the Obama administration’s strategy in Yemen, were put on hold by the outgoing president for review by Trump.

“We are aware of reports indicating the Yemeni government requested a suspension of U.S. ground operations,” said acting State Department spokesman Mark Toner in a statement. “We note that the Yemeni foreign minister has denied these reports.”

“The United States conducts operations consistent with international law and in coordination with the government of Yemen,” Toner said.

Last month’s raid — billed as an intelligence-gathering operation on the militant group — turned into an hour-long gunfight as Navy SEALs and troops from the United Arab Emirates clashed with well-entrenched al-Qaeda fighters. Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens was fatally wounded and five other service members were injured by hostile fire and a hard landing after a Marine transport aircraft crashed near the raid site.

Yemeni officials said the operation killed 15 women and children, including the 8-year-old daughter of the Yemeni American cleric Anwar ­al-Awlaki, who was killed in 2011 in a U.S. drone strike. Photos of the dead civilians were posted on social media following the raid. Though the Pentagon initially denied reports of civilian dead, officials acknowledged in the days following the raid that some had been killed and that they were “assessing reports” on casualties.

The White House has defended the operation, calling it a success despite the loss of a Navy SEAL and civilian deaths.

“The goal of the raid was intelligence gathering, and that’s what we received and that’s what we got,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Tuesday. “That’s why we can deem it a success.”

During the briefing, Spicer did not mention the Yemeni reaction to the raid and on Wednesday he said that, “anyone who undermines the success of that raid owes an apology and a disservice to the life of Chief Ryan Owens.”

Spicer’s remarks Wednesday come a day after U.S. lawmakers met for a classified briefing about the outcome of the mission. Afterward, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement, “While many of the objectives of the recent raid in Yemen were met, I would not describe any operation that results in the loss of American life as a success.”

Yemen has attempted to limit U.S. operations in the past. Following a U.S. drone strike in 2014 that killed approximately  a dozen civilians, the Yemeni government voted to ban U.S. aircraft. Houthi rebels overthrew the government that year,  plunging the country into civil war, and strikes resumed in greater numbers.

This post has been updated to reflect comment from the White House and State Department.

Ali al-Mujahed in Sanaa, Yemen, and Karen DeYoung, Brian Murphy and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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