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US/Yemen: Investigate Civilian Deaths from Airstrikes

Four Years On, No Justice for 41 Bedouins Killed by US Cruise Missiles

The United States and Yemen should investigate airstrikes in Yemen causing civilian deaths and ensure accountability and appropriate redress for unlawful attacks, Human Rights Watch said today. A December 12, 2013 drone strike may have killed up to 12 civilians just days before the fourth anniversary of a December 17, 2009 US cruise missile attack that killed  41 villagers that the US has never publicly acknowledged or investigated.

The December 2009 US cruise missile strike on al-Majalah, a hamlet in southern Abyan province, killed 14 alleged armed militants but also 41 Bedouin civilians sleeping in tents nearby. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks confirmed that the US carried out the attack, but the Obama administration never publicly acknowledged its role. Relatives of the civilians killed have rejected the Yemeni government’s offers of compensation as insufficient, and said they will refuse any sum until the Yemeni government fulfills a promise to prosecute those responsible for the strike.

“Four years later, relatives are still waiting for the US to acknowledge the killing of 41 civilians in al-Majalah, or even to account for what happened in that airstrike,” said Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Military operations that do little to address civilian casualties are short-sighted as well as unlawful.”

The attacks on al-Majalah and Rad`a are among at least 83 targeted killings that research groups say the US has carried out since 2009 in Yemen, many with remotely piloted drones, against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the armed group the US is targeting in Yemen.  Research groups estimate the strikes have killed 500 or more people. President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has consented to the strikes but, on December 15, the Yemeni Parliament passed a non-binding motion demanding a halt to drone operations.

An October Human Rights Watch report, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda,”describes how US cruise missiles released hundreds of cluster submunitions, indiscriminate weapons by their very nature, on al-Majalah. Two-thirds of the civilians killed were women and children. The strike area remains littered with cluster munitions, which can explode on impact. A 2010 inquiry by Yemen’s parliament found that faulty intelligence led to the civilian deaths.

Five days before the fourth anniversary of the al-Majalah attack, a reported US drone strike on a wedding procession killed 12 men and wounded 15 others near the central Yemeni city of Rad`a. Witnesses and government officials have provided contradictory accounts about whether the strike killed members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. A brief statement from the Yemeni government said the December 12 strike killed “many ranking terrorists.”  But local and international media reports quoted unnamed Yemeni government officials as saying those killed were civilians. A council member from the area and a witness to the strike who knew the victims, as well as a local journalist who investigated the attack, told Human Rights Watch they believed that none of those killed were armed militants.  

The councilman, Aziz al-Amri, who said he was involved in the negotiations, said Yemeni authorities gave a total of 34 million Yemeni rials (US$158,000) to relatives of those killed and to those who were wounded after residents blocked  the major thoroughfare between Rad`a and Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, to protest the killings. The Yemeni authorities also gave 101 assault rifles to relatives of those killed, a traditional acknowledgment of wrongdoing, the council member and journalist said. International media  also reported the payments of money and guns.

The US refuses to acknowledge nearly all individual strikes or to reveal casualty figures, saying only that civilians are rarely killed. On May 23, President Barack Obama said the US only uses lethal force outside recognized battle zones such as Yemen if it has “near-certainty” that no civilians will be harmed, although the US has not disclosed when it implemented this policy. The Obama administration should explain why it believed the Rad’a attack was consistent with the policy.

“Guns and cash do not resolve the issue of whether people killed or wounded in these strikes were civilians and if so, who was responsible for their deaths,” Tayler said.  “Investigations are needed whenever civilians are killed, so their families and the public will learn why and what needs to be done. The fourth anniversary of al-Majalah is an opportunity for the US and Yemen to end their unconscionable secrecy on targeted killings.”

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