Amnesty International has released images of a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions, apparently taken following an attack on an alleged al-Qa’ida training camp in Yemen that killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children.
The 17 December 2009 attack on the community of al-Ma'jalah in the Abyan area in the south of Yemen killed 55 people including 14 alleged members of al-Qa’ida.
“A military strike of this kind against alleged militants without an attempt to detain them is at the very least unlawful. The fact that so many of the victims were actually women and children indicates that the attack was in fact grossly irresponsible, particularly given the likely use of cluster munitions,” said Philip Luther, Deputy Director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Programme.
The Yemeni government has said its forces alone carried out the attack on al-Ma'jalah, the site of an alleged al-Qa'ida training camp in al-Mahfad district, Abyan Governorate.
Shortly after the attack some US media reported alleged statements by unnamed US government sources who said that US cruise missiles launched on presidential orders had been fired at two alleged al-Qa'ida sites in Yemen.
“Based on the evidence provided by these photographs, the US government must disclose what role it played in the al-Ma'jalah attack, and all governments involved must show what steps they took to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries,” said Philip Luther.
The photographs enable the positive identification of damaged missile parts, which appear to be from the payload, mid-body, aft-body and propulsion sections of a BGM-109D Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile.
This type of missile, launched from a warship or submarine, is designed to carry a payload of 166 cluster submunitions (bomblets) which each explode into over 200 sharp steel fragments that can cause injuries up to 150m away. An incendiary material inside the bomblet also spreads fragments of burning zirconium designed to set fire to nearby flammable objects.
A further photograph, apparently taken within half an hour of the others, shows an unexploded BLU 97 A/B submunition itself, the type carried by BGM-109D missiles. These missiles are known to be held only by US forces and Yemeni armed forces are unlikely to be capable of using such a missile.
Amnesty International has 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, but has yet to receive a response.
“Amnesty International is gravely concerned by evidence that cluster munitions appear to have been used in Yemen, when most states around the world have committed to comprehensively ban these weapons,” said Mike Lewis, Amnesty International's arms control researcher.
“Cluster munitions have indiscriminate effects and unexploded bomblets threaten lives and livelihoods for years afterwards. All governments responsible for using them must urgently provide assistance to clear unexploded munitions.”
Neither the USA nor Yemen has yet signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty designed to comprehensively ban such weapons which is due to enter into force on 1 August 2010.
A Yemeni parliamentary committee that investigated the 17 December 2009 attack reported in February that 41 people it described as civilians had been killed. In its report the committee said that on arrival at the scene of the attack in al-Ma’jalah it “found that all the homes and their contents were burnt and all that was left were traces of furniture.”
It said the committee “found traces of blood of the victims and a number of holes in the ground left by the bombing… as well as a number of unexploded bombs”, and that one survivor told the committee that his family, who were killed although they had committed no crime, were sleeping when the missiles struck on the morning of 17 December 2009.
In its report, the Yemeni parliamentary committee said the Yemeni government should open a judicial investigation into the attack and bring to justice those responsible for the killings of civilians, but no such investigation is known to have been held as yet.
The committee reported statements by the Abyan Governorate authorities that 14 alleged members of al-Qa’ida were also killed in the attack, but said it had been unable to obtain information confirming this and was able to obtain the name of only one of the 14 from the Abyan authorities.
Image 1, additional details: The Tomahawk BGM-109D cruise missile would have carried 166 BLU 97 cluster bomblets, which are designed to scatter over a wide area, acting indiscriminately when used in civilian areas. Many also fail to explode on impact, as in the photograph above, but may explode if disturbed, making land dangerous for communities to use for months or years after attacks.