WASHINGTON – U.S. warplanes and a small number of ground troops are assisting in a “major operation” in central Yemen against the al-Qaida faction there, the Pentagon confirmed Friday.

The joint United Arab Emirates-U.S. operation is led by the government of Yemen, according to a statement released by UAE’s embassy in Washington.

The forces are targeting al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula militants in the Shabwah Governorate in central Yemen, and “is being closely supported by a combined UAE and U.S. enabling force,” the embassy said. 

Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said the U.S. role in the operation includes surveillance, aerial refueling, close air support and a “small number of forces on the ground,” he said, without providing specifics.

The mission aims to “go in there and really rid the Shabwah Governate of remaining holdout areas” of al-Qaida, Davis said.

Since February the U.S. has conducted more than 80 airstrikes in Yemen against al-Qaida forces and conducted at least two ground raids, including a January 29 raid that resulted in the death of a Navy SEAL, Chief Special Warfare Operator William "Ryan" Owens.

The Navy’s Bataan Amphibious Ready Group is also nearby to support the operation but Davis did not say what kind of role those ships or the roughly 2,200 Marines aboard might have in the operation.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was visiting Norfolk, Va., Friday to meet with Navy special operations forces based there. FOX News reported Thursday that Mattis would be getting updates on the operation while in Norfolk.

Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.

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