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US surveillance drones flying over Gaza to help with hostage search

By Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand, Zachary Cohen and Oren Liebermann, CNN

(CNN) — The US military is flying surveillance drones over Gaza as part of American efforts to help Israel locate the more than 240 hostages still held by the terror group Hamas, according to multiple US officials familiar with the matter.

The drones are part of a surge of intelligence assets sent to the region in the days and weeks following the October 7 attack on Israel, which caught both Israeli and US intelligence services by surprise.

Two other US drones — both MQ-9 Reapers, one of the US’s most sophisticated drones primarily used for surveillance — were also flying off the coast of Lebanon over the weekend, according to one source familiar with the effort and flight tracker data reviewed by CNN. The US is closely monitoring for any signs that Lebanese Hezbollah — or any other Iranian proxy force — may seek to escalate the simmering tensions rippling across the region.

The New York Times first reported on the use of US drones in the region.

Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder confirmed on Friday that the US is flying drones over Gaza.

“In support of hostage recovery efforts, the U.S. is conducting unarmed UAV flights over Gaza, as well as providing advice and assistance to support our Israeli partner as they work on their hostage recovery efforts,” he said. “These UAV flights began after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel.”

It’s not clear how helpful the imagery gathered by the overhead flights in Gaza will be in locating hostages, since they are widely believed to be held in the vast network of underground tunnels, some former intelligence officials said. Of the 240 hostages still held by Hamas, 10 of them are believed to be Americans.

US officials insisted that the intelligence gathered by the drones and shared with Israel is limited to hostage recovery efforts and is not so-called “targeting intelligence” — information used to conduct lethal strikes against Hamas leaders and positions.

US special operations personnel inside Israel have also been advising the Israel Defense Forces on hostage recovery efforts, as the US separately has been providing bombs and other lethal aid. The Biden administration also dispatched three-star Marine Corps general James Glynn to counsel the IDF on planning its tactical assault on Gaza, but he has since returned to the US.

But Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Thursday that those forces and the US military broadly are “not participating in IDF target development” or “helping them run their campaign” in Gaza.

“We the US military are not participating in IDF target development, helping them run their campaign — just to be crystal clear that it is their operation,” Ryder said. “That planning element is providing planning and intelligence support as it relates to hostage recovery.”

Still, several of these officials acknowledged to CNN that that the information gathered by the drones that the US shares with Israel could also be helpful in tracking Hamas’s activities beyond holding hostages.

Israel has been pounding Gaza with airstrikes for weeks, drawing international criticism that it has been insufficiently mindful of the risk to civilians trapped in the blockaded enclave.

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Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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