SANAA, Yemen — Yemeni policemen sprinted up a rocky dirt road, firing AK-47s, lobbing grenades and detonating explosives at a cinderblock house, a supposed Al Qaeda hideout.
The scenario was fake, but the firepower very real, as U.S. and U.K. military trainers put local counterterrorism forces through their paces northeast of the capital one morning recently.
The 200-person counterterrorism police force is trained daily by the foreign commandos, according to a Yemeni soldier who addressed a small crowd of journalists invited to watch the training.
U.S. and U.K. military personnel were not present, since they're not allowed to be seen or photographed by the press to avoid drawing attention to their presence on the ground in Yemen, the Yemeni soldier said. His voice was muffled by a black nylon facemask. For his own safety, he said he did not want his identity revealed. He would not give his name or allow himself to be recorded on video.
The presence of Western military personnel in Yemen is "sensitive," he said, gesturing with an unlit cigarette.
Behind-the-scenes U.S. military involvement in Yemen is not new, but it has been the focus of a heated and virulent debate in Yemen since government forces last month renewed their fight against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a local affiliate of the international terrorist group. The group claimed responsibility for the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day.
U.S. special forces have been training Yemen's 200-strong counterterrorism police unit on the ground since 2002, when Yemen came under the scrutiny of U.S. and its allies in the newly declared "War on Terror." It is one of three elite units trained by U.S. and U.K. special forces.