Special forces in Yemen rescued eight hostages including "a foreigner" on Tuesday just hours after Al-Qaeda seized them at an air base in the violence-wracked country, military officials said.
Seven Yemeni soldiers and a man three Yemeni military sources said was an American -- despite denials -- were abducted when the militants assaulted Al-Anad base in the southern province of Lahij.
"There were no US personnel rescued from Yemen last night," a Pentagon official said. "We applaud the government of Yemen's hostage rescue operation."
The American embassy in Sanaa declined comment and the Pentagon referred any other queries about the operation to Yemen's government.
Special forces launched a dawn raid to free the hostages, killing seven kidnappers. A member of the security forces was reported to have been lightly wounded during the rescue.
"The seven assailants have been killed by Yemeni forces, supported by American forces," a Yemeni military official told AFP, without elaborating on the reported US role.
The militants captured seven soldiers on guard during the night, before advancing into the base and seizing the other hostage, an official said.
Yemen's Supreme Security Council had a different version of events, with the official Saba news agency quoting a spokesman as saying that the eight kidnapped personnel comprised six Yemenis, a Saudi national and an Ethiopian.
The spokesman said the eight were rescued from the Hajr As-Saghir region of Hadramawt province, contradicting military officials.
Yemen is a key US ally in the fight against Al-Qaeda, allowing Washington to conduct a longstanding drone war against the group on its territory.
Yemeni officials acknowledge that Washington has deployed personnel at Al-Anad base to gather intelligence for drone strikes.
A military official said that "dozens of American military personnel" are based at Al-Anad, mainly instructors involved in training anti-terror forces.
Al-Qaeda has exploited instability in the impoverished Arabian Peninsula country since a 2011 uprising overthrew longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
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Hundreds of foreigners have been kidnapped over past years in Yemen, mostly by disgruntled tribesmen trying to pressure local authorities. Almost all were freed unharmed, mostly in exchange for ransom or government concessions.
- Shebab infiltrators -
On another front, Yemen's interior ministry said overnight that the coast guard was on alert in several provinces following information that "terrorist groups belonging to Somalia's (Al-Qaeda-affiliated) Shebab are planning to enter Yemen to carry out terrorist attacks".
The ministry ordered "increased deployment of security patrols along Yemen's coast in coordination with naval forces... to arrest any elements and foil any suspected movement".
It was unclear if the warning was linked to the attack in Lahij.
Tens of thousands of Somali refugees cross the Gulf of Aden every year to reach Yemen.
But African and Yemeni officials have warned that Shebab fighters were also infiltrating among refugees entering the country, which is home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Washington calls AQAP the deadliest franchise in the global extremist network.
Several Al-Qaeda militants have been killed in attacks by unmanned drones.
The United States is the only country operating drones over Yemen, but US officials rarely confirm individual strikes.
The militants remain active in southern and eastern regions of Yemen despite several military campaigns by government forces.
Al-Qaeda militants have closed ranks with Sunni tribesmen in southern Yemen to halt the advance of Shiite Huthi militias who seized Sanaa in September unopposed, and who have since extended their control to coastal areas and regions south of the capital.