An American drone targeted and killed several suspected Al Qaeda fighters in western Yemen on Monday, the first U.S. airstrike after weeks of civil unrest that appeared to disrupt counter-terrorism operations in the Arab nation.
U.S. officials said the deadly attack showed that U.S. counter-terrorism operations are continuing despite the collapse of the American-backed government last week after a rebel militia known as the Houthis seized nominal control in Sana, the capital.
The turmoil in Sana separately forced the State Department to limit operations at the U.S. Embassy, which has been running on a reduced staff since September. Officials said the mission will continue to handle consular emergencies, such as helping Americans with lost passports, and was not evacuated.
"The U.S. embassy will be closed to the public until further notice out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting the embassy," according to an embassy statement. "We are continuously analyzing the security conditions and will resume consular operations as soon as our analysis indicates we are able to do so safely."
Missiles fired from the drone, which apparently was operated by the CIA, struck a vehicle in Marib province, a region about 75 miles east of Sana, said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive operation.
Three men suspected of being low-level fighters with Al Qaeda's powerful affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were killed, the official said. No high-ranking members of the group, which claimed responsibility for the deadly attack this month on a satirical magazine in Paris, were killed.
The air strike is unlikely to quell a partisan battle over the Obama administration's approach to the upheaval in Yemen. Republicans have accused the Obama administration of easing counter-terrorism operations and allowing the Houthis, an Iran-backed Yemeni militia, to gain control over a U.S. ally.
On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called for sending more U.S. special operations forces to Yemen, and said the administration's policy was "delusional."
U.S. officials have offered conflicting views of whether the CIA and Pentagon still could conduct counter-terrorism operations. Some officials said they have continued unabated, and others said the campaign had wound down as Yemen's political crisis drew in government security forces.
Complicating the assessments is the role of the Houthis. They are mostly adherents of a Shiite Muslim sect that accounts for about a third of Yemen's population. They are enemies of Al Qaeda but hostile to U.S. and Saudi interference in Yemeni affairs.
Monday's drone strike, after a lengthy pause, suggests the U.S. had obtained a degree of maneuvering room to target the Houthis' foes.
Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said the U.S. would "maintain our counter-terrorism pressure on AQAP … we've been doing that."
U.S. officials "have long-standing partnership with elements of the security services … those continue," she told reporters.
The Houthi militia has taken over large parts of the central government, however. The militia has been aided by Iranian weapons and advisors from Iran's Revolutionary Guard, according to U.S. officials, raising fears that the group would try to shut down U.S. operations against Al Qaeda.
The U.S. reportedly flies drones into Yemen from bases in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti, a tiny nation on the Horn of Africa. A military official said the Pentagon did not conduct the strike on Monday. The CIA would not comment on the strike.
Yemeni President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and his Cabinet resigned last week after Houthi rebels had surrounded the presidential palace and residence and days of clashes ensued. Hadi has been backed by the U.S. and much of the international community in his plans to bring democracy to the country.