US spy planes search for hostages in Gaza as Pentagon builds forces in Middle East

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has been flying unarmed drones over Gaza in search of hostages, the Defense Department acknowledged on Friday.

The unmanned spy plane flights began after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that killed 1,400 people, Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement. Hamas also seized some 239 hostages in the attacks, including U.S. citizens.

Flights of U.S. Air Force Reaper drones indicate deeper involvement by the U.S. military in the conflict than previously acknowledged. U.S. military experts have advised their Israeli counterparts on lessons learned from urban combat in Iraq, U.S. officials have said.

Drones have the ability to feed video and still footage from surveillance sensors to forces involved in hostage rescue attempts.

That imagery could be used to establish “pattern of life at suspected hostage locations,” said Scott Murray, a retired Air Force intelligence officer with extensive experience in the Middle East. That information could be valuable to help locate hideouts and to plan rescue operations.

The drones might also carry LiDAR sensors, Murray said. Those sensors uses laser pulses to create three dimensional imagery of ground surfaces, including buildings and vegetation. That information could be used to create of the structures and vegetation at the site where hostages are thought to be held.

Separately, the Pentagon continues to bolsters its forces in the Middle East.

The Navy announced Friday that two aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Gerald Ford and USS Dwight Eisenhower, have been conducting joint operations in the eastern Mediterranean. The carriers carry dozens of warplanes and their escort vessels include ships that fire guided missiles.

The Pentagon ordered the ships to the region as a warning to adversaries such as Iran and its proxy forces not to attack Israel and broaden the war.

There are about 11,000 sailors aboard the ships.

Earlier in the week, the Pentagon announced that 300 more troops would be sent to the Middle East, joining thousands of others who arrived since the Oct. 7 attack.

The latest deployment includes troops skilled in defusing and disposing explosives.  Since Oct. 17, Iranian-backed militias have launched 28 attacks against bases housing U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria.

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