U.S. military officials on Friday disclosed that for the first time four air strikes inside Yemen that have killed 15 al-Qaida militants dating back to February and March in one of the group's primary strongholds in the region.

Yemen is one of the terror group's primary strongholds in the region. The newly announced strikes, including several dating back to February and March, bring to nine the total there so far in for strikes on Al Qaeda militants in Yemen to nine for 2016, and highlight an intensifying U.S. mission that also includes a small team of American ground troops.

Those forces are operating near the Yemeni port of al Mukalla, a safe haven for the group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP.

The strikes highlight the intensification of U.S. military operations in Yemen during the past several months. The effort continues to include a small team of American troops on the ground near the Yemeni port of al Mukalla, which has been a safe haven for the group known as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

The air strikes, announced by U.S. Central Command, officials announced four strikes that included:

  • A May 19 strike in the Shabwah Governorate in central Yemen killed four al-Qaida operatives.
  • A March 30 strike near Azzan in central Yemen killed two al-Qaida operatives.
  • A Feb. 29 strike in Hadramawt Governorate in east Yemen killed three al-Qaida operatives.
  • A Feb. 3 strike in Shabwah Governorate in central Yemen killed six al-Qaida operatives.

In March 2015, the U.S. evacuated about 125 special operations troops amid the expanding civil war between Yemen's government loyalists backed by a Sunni Arab coalition and Houthi rebels supported by Iran. Shortly after that withdrawal of U.S. forces, al-Qaida militants seized territory along Yemen’s coastline, including al Mukalla, and used lucrative oil exports to help transform the city into a wealthy ministate.

The four counterterrorism strikes disclosed Friday were legally unrelated to the U.S. support mission on the ground.

The small team of U.S. troops deployed in April to a "fixed location" in Yemen to provide support for operations led by the Yemeni military and the United Arab Emirates. Pentagon officials said those troops are providing intelligence support as well as airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, advice and assistance with operational planning, maritime interdiction and security operations, medical support and aerial refueling.

The deployment of those U.S. troops is "temporary," officials said, and both That deployment is operationally and legally distinct from another U.S. military operation in Yemen, one that is providing support for a Saudi-led coalition that is backing the Yemeni government troops. Under that arrangement, the U.S. is in the civil war against Iranian-backed rebels, specifically offering the Saudis intelligence, airborne fuel tankers and thousands of advanced munitions in the fight against Iranian-backed rebels.

A spokesman for CENTCOM spokesman, Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, offered no specific reason for the unusual delay in announcing the air strikes on militants in Yemen.

"As part of Central Command's commitment to transparency, we will endeavor to release information about counterrerrorism strikes in places like Yemen, recognizing that there may be times when such announcements may be delayed for operational or intelligence reasons," Ryder said Friday.

"Sometimes there is going to be competing priorities in terms of operations and intelligence, collecting reflections on strikes, not wanting to let our adversaries know where those strikes are coming from. ... Sometimes the chatter that comes after a strike enables us to collect more intelligence on adversaries and conduct future strikes."

Al-Qaida Al Qaid in the Arabian Peninsula "AQAP remains a significant threat to the region and has a destabilizing effect on Yemen," Ryder added. "The terrorist group is using the unrest in Yemen to provide a haven from which to plan future attacks against our allies as well as the U.S. and its interests." 

Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.

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