News Briefs – May 9, 2016

U.S. military supporting Yemen in fight against al Qaeda

The Pentagon is providing military support, intelligence, ships and special operations forces to help in the ongoing operations against al qaeda militants in Yemen, U.S. officials said May 5.
The U.S. military is helping Yemeni, Emirati and Arab Coalition forces that are battling al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and were recently able to retake the port city of Mukalla from AQAP control.
A senior U.S. official said that American special operations forces are advising the Yemeni and Emirati forces in the region, and that they are working at the headquarters level and are not near the conflict. The official was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. is providing “limited support” to the Arab Coalition and Yemeni operations in and around Mukalla. He said that includes planning, airborne surveillance, intelligence gathering, medical support, refueling and maritime interdiction.
Davis declined to discuss whether or not special operations forces were in the country. But he said the U.S. has sent a number of ships to the region including the USS Boxer amphibious ready group and the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is embarked with the group. The USS Gravely and USS Gonzalez, both Navy destroyers, are also in the area.
“Trained and supported by an Arab Coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Yemeni government forces and resistance fighters have retaken Mukalla and continue their offensive against AQAP in eastern Yemen,” said Davis. “AQAP remains a significant security threat to the United States and to our regional partners and we welcome this effort to specifically remove AQAP from Mukalla and to degrade, disrupt and destroy AQAP in Yemen.”
Late last month forces loyal to Yemen’s internationally recognized government drove AQAP militants from Mukalla, a year after they captured it. Mukalla had been their stronghold.
Al Qaeda had gained ground amid the chaos that has reigned in Yemen since 2014 with Yemen’s Shiite Houthi rebels fighting the internationally backed government and its allies with the Saudi-led coalition.
Security officials and witnesses also said May 5 that al Qaeda militants in Yemen were pulling out of Zinjibar and Jaar, two coastal cities east of the key southern port of Aden, following tribal-led negotiations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters while the witnesses requested anonymity out of safety concerns. AP

Pentagon spokesman says deadly IS attack was a surprise

The Islamic State attack on Kurdish forces in northern Iraq that killed U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Charles Keating was a surprise that, if anticipated, might have turned out differently, a Pentagon spokesman said May 5.
“Obviously, had we had the forces there, been able to see this attack coming, they would have responded differently to it,” Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said. “Perhaps this could have been avoided. That’s certainly something that we’re looking at carefully. This particular attack was not anticipated and we were forced to respond.”
Keating is the third U.S. service member to be killed in combat in Iraq since U.S. forces returned there in 2014.
Keating was a member of what the military calls a quick-reaction force that was called to the scene of the gun battle in which a small U.S. military advisory team had already become involved. The Islamic State force managed to penetrate the Kurds’ lines but ultimately was pushed out of the area.
The U.S. military’s main spokesman in Baghdad, Col. Steve Warren, said Wednesday that it was unclear how IS managed to assemble an attacking force of an estimated 125 fighters, plus vehicles, without being detected prior to the assault.
“You can’t observe every inch of earth every moment in the day”’ Warren said. “There’s not enough eyeballs out there to watch it all, anyways.” He said the militants were initially successful by surprising the Kurdish force but ultimately were beaten back.
“So it was a failed attack, but certainly, they were able to martial and deploy a force that surprised the Peshmerga forces,” Warren said. The Peshmerga are a Kurdish militia.
Cook was asked whether Defense Secretary Ash Carter was looking for ways to make the U.S. advisory mission less dangerous.
“We had a fatality of a U.S. service member and that requires hard questions,” Cook said. “And so, we are looking at the situation in terms of force protection.” He added: “And of course we’ll be reassessing force protection going forward.” AP

U.S. Navy commander says canceled HK visit a minor hurdle

The commander of the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet May 6 dismissed the cancellation of a planned port visit to Hong Kong by an American aircraft carrier as a “minor hurdle” in relations between the two militaries.
Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin spoke in China’s financial hub of Shanghai after the docking of the USS Blue Ridge, the fleet’s command ship, whose visit he said indicated the durability of the China-U.S. military-to-military relationship.
The U.S. State Department said last week that China recently denied a request for the USS John C. Stennis to visit Hong Kong, in an apparent sign of mounting tension in the disputed South China Sea.
Aucoin said he didn’t know why the visit was canceled, although Defense Secretary Ash Carter and his Philippine counterpart had visited the carrier in the South China Sea two weeks earlier, irking Beijing. The reason “would probably be a good question for the government of China,” he said.
“But the very fact that we’re on this pier, that our two navies, our two countries, don’t let that minor hurdle get in the way of our relationships. Our, the relationship between our two countries is much too important for a port visit to get in the way of that,” Aucoin told reporters.
China hasn’t explained the reason for the cancellation, but previous cancellations have been linked to tensions over Taiwan or other political and military disputes.
Despite lingering suspicions, the two navies have been gradually expanding contacts and have agreed to protocols to avoid unintended incidents at sea.
The two navies this month are cooperating in a training exercise with 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. China also plans to again take part in this June’s Rim of the Pacific international naval drills that the U.S. Pacific Fleet hosts every two years off Hawaii. AP

First lady wants next White House to keep focus on military

Michelle Obama says the next White House occupant should keep making it a national priority to support service members, veterans and their families.
Mrs. Obama and Dr. Jill Biden created a nationwide initiative called “Joining Forces” in 2011 to support active-duty and retired service members and their families. It includes finding jobs for retiring and returning veterans and helping spouses transfer professional licenses when they move to another state.
The first lady announced May 5 that 40 companies have pledged to hire more than 110,000 veterans and military spouses over the next five years.
Online retailer Amazon says it will hire 25,000 veterans and military spouses during that time.
The announcement was part of a month-long series of events marking the fifth anniversary of Joining Forces. AP

Obama challenges Americans to give back to vets, families

Taking a cue from his wife, President Barack Obama challenged Americans May 5 to consider how they might give back to those who have served in the military and their families.
Obama spoke to more than 1,300 service members at Joint Base Andrews as part of an anniversary celebration honoring the USO and the “Joining Forces” initiative that first lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden created in 2011.
“I challenge every American to ask that simple question: ‘How can I give back to these troops and families who have given me so much?’” Obama said. “Everybody should have that in their minds.”
Obama said the celebration, which featured comedians Jon Stewart and David Letterman, represented a marker for Joining Forces rather than the end point even with just eight months left in his administration. He said about 200,000 service members make the transition to civilian life every year, so the need to help them will continue.
About 2.7 million people have returned from serving in war zones since September 11, 2001. The first lady said those returning home have in many ways made her job easy when it comes to trying to enlist help from employers and others.
“When people hear about you, they want to step up,” she said. “You inspire people all across this county and that is absolutely true for Jill and me.”
The focus of Joining Forces has been primarily on helping veterans and military spouses gain employment. Earlier May 5, Mrs. Obama said more than 1.2 million veterans and spouses have been hired or trained since the launch.
She also announced that 40 companies have pledged to hire more than 110,000 veterans and spouses over the next five years. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, appeared with her and said the online retailer will hire 25,000 veterans over the period, nearly one-fourth of the total.
“So we need to keep up this momentum,” the first lady said. “And I will say this again and again and again: No matter who is in the White House next, this should absolutely continue to be a national priority with national leadership coming from this building.”
Stewart and Letterman came to the event with vastly changed appearances from their days hosting television comedy shows. Each sported a full beard.
Letterman had such lengthy white whiskers that he said someone came up to him to thank him for all he had done, including his poetry.
“Who do you think I am?” Letterman asked.
The response: “Walt Whitman.” AP

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