When U.S. drones kill civilians, Yemen’s government tries to conceal it

The Washington Post reports: A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, Yemen, which al-Qaeda militants once controlled. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.

Chaos. Flames. Corpses. Then, a second missile struck.

Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her 7-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also perished that day, and another man later died from his wounds.

The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaeda militants and that its Soviet-era jets had carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that all the victims were civilians who lived in a village near Radda. U.S. officials last week acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike.

“Their bodies were burning,” recalled Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, 27, who was riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. “How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaeda.”

More than three months later, the incident offers a window into the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults. In this case, the deaths have bolstered the popularity of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the terrorist network’s Yemen affiliate, which has tried to stage attacks on U.S. soil several times.

Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its assertion that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, Abdelrauf al-Dahab, who was thought to be in a car traveling on the same road.

U.S. airstrikes have killed numerous civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world, and those governments have spoken against the attacks. But in Yemen, the government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public. It continues to insist in local media reports that its own aging jets attacked the truck.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has kept silent publicly, neither confirming nor denying any involvement, a standard practice with most U.S. airstrikes in its clandestine counterterrorism fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country. [Continue reading…]

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