Yemeni officials said that an American drone crashed last week in a deserted area in eastern Yemen.
Three military officers, attached to a military brigade in al-Mahrah province, said that one of their brigade teams was tasked early Thursday, Jan. 16*, to fetch the drone wreck that is now with the brigade near the crash scene.
The United States has used drones to attack suspected militants of the local branch al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most dangerous affiliate of the global al Qaeda network.
An officer with the 123rd Infantry Brigade under the command of the local "Axis," or local military headquarters, in the town of al-Ghaydah, said that his commander tasked a team on early Thursday morning to fetch the wreck after Bedouins informed him of the crash a few hours earlier. "First, the Bedouins saw it catch fire while still in the air. Then it fell immediately to the desert," said the military officer, who spoke anonymously, citing the "sensitivity" of the matter.
Since 2002, the United States is estimated to have conducted more than 86 strikes against suspected al Qaeda militants, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks the covert drone program based on international media outlets and Yemeni local reports. The estimated death toll of suspected al Qaeda members has reached 396, while the civilian death toll has numbered approximately 100. Late last year, a U.S. drone targeted a wedding convoy in al-Bayda province, killing nine civilians and at least three militants who locals said were part of the procession.
This isn't* the first time a drone has supposedly gone down over Yemen. In 2011, for example, a unmanned aircraft crashed in Abyan province. (Initial press reports said it was a Predator drone; locals I spoke with said it was a smaller, hand-held Raven.) Four more drones had major mishaps in the skies over Afghanistan, according to U.S. military statistics.
The 123rd Brigade officer said this most recent crash took place at sunset on Wednesday in a deserted district called Hat, some estimated 60 kilometers from the brigade's headquarters. But the Bedouins who witnessed the drone crash -- some of whom serve as border guards and are enlisted in the 123rd Brigade -- weren't able to inform the military until approximately 9 p.m.
After the local brigade commander informed senior officials in Sanaa, said the officer, a team was tasked to fetch the wrecked drone at 1 a.m. Thursday. "They arrived at the scene to find it totally burned," said the officer.
So far, the Yemeni government hasn't commented on the issue. Mohammed al-Basha, spokesperson at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said, "At this point I can't confirm nor deny the incident." Other officers from the 123rd Brigade, contacted by phone, declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to do so. Representatives for the CIA and the Pentagon also declined to comment.
One officer from the 123rd Brigade said that his fellow soldiers found two missiles next to the drone and detonated them based on the commander's order. "They did so for fear they would later explode and do harm."
He said he wasn't among the team that first came across the drone. But he saw the wreck in the morning after the team brought it into the brigade and he helped carry it from a military truck.
He said the drone was fairly damaged and roughly the size of a Toyota Corolla -- too small to be one of Yemen's traditional, manned aircraft.
He said that an intelligence representative and other officers from the main military "Axis" in the city of al-Ghaydah arrived Thursday morning to give a report to senior officials but that the wreck is still with the brigade. "It's still in the 123rd Brigade and will remain probably until a wider committee is formed to investigate the matter," he said.
Shuaib Almosawa is a freelance journalist based in Yemen. Follow him on Twitter at @Shuaibalmosawa.
*Correction, Jan. 21, 2014: The brigade team was tasked on early Thursday, Jan. 16, to fetch the wrecked drone. An earlier version of this article said the team was tasked to fetch it on early Wednesday. (Return to reading.)
*Correction, Jan. 21, 2014: This incident was not the first time a drone has allegedly crashed over Yemen. Another alleged drone crash occurred in 2011. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said this incident was the first time that a drone has allegedly crashed over Yemen. (Return to reading.)
United State Air Force