A leaked diplomatic cable has corroborated images released earlier this year by Amnesty International showing that the US military carried out a missile strike in south Yemen in December 2009 that killed dozens of local residents.
In the secret cable from January 2010 published by the organization Wikileaks, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is reported as having assured US General David Petraeus that his government would “continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours”.
According to the cable, this prompted Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-‘Alimi “to joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shebwa were American-made but deployed by the ROYG [Republic of Yemen Government]”.
“The cable appears to confirm Amnesty International’s finding that the Abyan strike was carried out by the US military, not Yemeni government forces,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
An alleged al-Qa’ida training camp at al-Ma’jalah, Abyan, was hit by a cruise missile on 17 December 2009. A Yemeni parliamentary inquiry found that 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children, and 14 alleged al-Qa’ida members were killed in the attack. In the 4 January cable, General Petraeus is recorded as saying that the attack had caused the deaths of “only” three “civilians”.
Amnesty International provided the media with photographs of the aftermath of the Abyan strike in June this year, including remnants of US-sourced cluster munitions and the Tomahawk cruise missiles used to deliver them. The organization had requested information from the Pentagon about the involvement of US forces in the al-Ma’jalah attack, and what precautions may have been taken to minimize deaths and injuries.
The US government did not respond to Amnesty International, but a press report the day after the images were released quoted a Pentagon spokesman as saying that the USA declined to comment on the strike and that questions on operations against al-Qa’ida should be posed to the Yemeni government.
“There must be an immediate investigation into the dozens of deaths of local residents in the Abyan air strike, including into the extent of US involvement,” said Philip Luther. “Those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice.”
The “Arhab” strike referred to in the secret cable was carried out on 17 December 2009 and the “Shebwa” strike on 24 December 2009. The Yemeni government insisted at the time that their forces had carried out all three attacks, which were meant to target al-Qai’da in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the leaked cable, President Saleh is said to have suggested that targeted aerial attacks were preferable to those by cruise missiles, which were “not very accurate”, and to have expressed anxiety about the level of civilian casualties caused.
President Saleh agreed to have US fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage targets “should actionable intelligence become available”, according to the cable, and also requested that the USA provide 12 armed helicopters and train and equip three new Republican Guard brigades, totalling 9,000 soldiers. He complained that Yemeni forces had not yet received the necessary training to operate 17 “Iraqi” light armoured vehicles provided by the US government in 2008.
The leaked cable says that US security assistance to Yemen would substantially increase from US$67 million in 2009 to US$150 million in 2010, including $45 million to equip and train an aviation regiment under the Yemeni Special Operations Forces. The USA told President Saleh that two fully equipped 87-foot patrol boats destined for the Yemeni coastguard were under construction and would arrive in Yemen within a year.
US forces are also alleged to have used unmanned aerial drones in Yemen in efforts to kill suspected leading al-Qa’ida members. An attack in May 2010 which apparently killed in error a key mediator between the Yemeni government and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula was said by some sources to have been carried out from an unmanned drone. Yemen’s Foreign Affairs Minister later said the government would investigate whether drones were used in the attack and, if so, whether they were used by Yemeni security forces or others, such as the USA. Amnesty International is not aware that any outcome to the investigation has been disclosed.
Amnesty International has called on the US government to:
investigate the serious allegations of the use of drones by US forces for targeted killings of individuals in Yemen and clarify the chain of command and rules governing the use of such drones;
ensure that all US military and security support given to Yemen, and all US military and security operations carried out in Yemen, are designed and implemented so as to adhere fully with relevant international human rights law and standards, and that such human rights standards are made fully operational in training programmes and systems of monitoring and accountability.