In a potential violation of the Obama administration’s targeted killing policy, the U.S. may have killed up to 12 civilians in a drone strike in Yemen last year.
If the United States failed to differentiate between noncombatants and militants before executing the strike, the attack may also represent a breach of international law in that it caused “civilian loss disproportionate to the expected military advantage.”
At least 12 men were killed and at least another 14 were injured when the U.S. launched four Hellfire missiles at 11 vehicles.
US officials have claimed that the December 2013 strike only killed Al-Qaeda members. Witnesses, however, tell a different story: according to their version, the strike targeted a wedding procession, and everyone killed and/or injured was a civilian.
“It is a total mess,” an unnamed U.S. official said. “It is completely not clear who was killed. This should be a wake-up call to everyone involved (in drone strikes) to find out what’s going on.”
While reports have confirmed that the convoy was, in fact, a wedding party, this confirmation does not rule out the possibility that militants were amongst the group.
Obama’s May 2013 policy calls for the need for “near certainty” that civilians will not be harmed by a strike. Directly contradicting this policy is the Human Rights Watch's (HRW) report, which suggests that in either scenario, civilian casualties were involved.
“While we do not rule out the possibility that [Al-Qaeda] fighters were killed and wounded in this strike, we also do not rule out the possibility that all of those killed and wounded were civilians,” said report author Letta Taylor, a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at HRW.
Both U.S. and Yemeni officials have stated that the strike’s primary target, Al-Qaeda leader Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, managed to escape.
Two reports conducted by the government also confirm that the strike killed only militants. These reports have not been released to the public.
As National Security Councilwoman Caitlin Hayden told the AP, “When we believe that civilians may have been killed, we investigate thoroughly.”
“In situations where we have concluded that civilians have been killed, the U.S. has made condolence payments were appropriate and possible,” Hayden continued, although she neither confirmed nor denied that such payments have been made in this particular situation.
The HRW report notes that America’s refusal to explain the attack raises questions as to the administration’s compliance with its own policies. The report urges the U.S. to “conduct a transparent investigation, hold individuals accountable for any wrongdoing, and properly compensate the affected parties.”
“All Yemenis,” stated Taylor, “especially the families of the dead and wounded, deserve to know why this wedding procession became a funeral.”
For all the controversy the strike has caused in and for the United States, it has also caused a massive amount of grief and anger in Yemen.
“You cannot imagine how angry people are (about the strike). They turned a wedding into a funeral,” said Nasser Al-Sane, a local Yemini journalist who lives near the town of Radda, where the drone strike was executed.
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