Two Yemenis who were fatally shot by U.S. officers outside a barber shop in that country's capital last month reportedly had ties to an Al Qaeda-linked cell responsible for several recent attacks on foreigners.
Citing a Yemeni official, The New York Times reported late Saturday that the cell was part of a kidnapping ring that has been blamed for the killing of a Frenchman last week; the attempted assassination of a German diplomat last month; an attack on the central prison in Sanaa this past February, which resulted in the release of 19 inmates; and the kidnapping of a Dutch couple last year.
The State Department said Saturday that the shooting on April 24 in an upscale neighborhood of Sanaa stemmed from a kidnapping attempt as well. Witnesses tell The Wall Street Journal that they saw a Western-looking man pull a gun from his belt and fatally shoot both Yemenis. An Interior Ministry spokesman told the Times that the would-be kidnappers were posing as police officers.
Citing unidentified U.S. officials, The Times reported that the Americans were a CIA officer and a lieutenant colonel with the elite Joint Special Operations Command who were visiting the barber shop in an upscale district in Yemen's capital. The officials also told the paper that the officers were simply getting a haircut at the time of the shooting.
The officers have left Yemen days after the incident, with the approval from the Yemeni government, according to The Times. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf confirmed that the officers have left Yemen but provided no other details.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa closed temporarily because of attacks on Westerners. A day before Tuesday's closure, gunmen opened fire on three French security guards working with the European Union mission in the Yemeni capital, killing one and wounding another.
The U.S. has waged a heavy campaign of drone strikes in Yemen against the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This month the Yemeni government has been waging an offensive against the militant group, and violence around the country has been on an upswing.
On Friday, gunmen believed to be Al Qaeda militants ambushed the motorcade of Yemen's defense minister in the Mahfad region, officials said. The assassination attempt failed.
Later in the day, a security checkpoint near the presidential palace in Sanaa came under attack and at least two policemen died. A night earlier in Sanaa, two Al Qaeda militants from Marib province were killed in clashes with security men, the Interior Ministry said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.