WikiLeaks Bolsters Claim of Deadly US Attack in Yemen

A diplomatic cable published by whistleblowing platform WikiLeaks corroborates images released earlier by Amnesty International (AI) showing that the U.S. military carried out a missile strike in south Yemen in December 2009 that killed dozens of local residents, including women and children, the rights group says.

In the secret cable, written in January 2010, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh is reported to have assured U.S. 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]". 

Amnesty International is calling on the U.S. government to investigate the serious allegations of the use of drones by U.S. forces for targeted killings of individuals in Yemen and clarify the chain of command and rules governing the use of such drones. 

Tom Parker, Amnesty’s policy director for terrorism, counter-terrorism and human rights, says that AI wrote to the Defense Department last May regarding the drone strike in Yemen. He said Amnesty raised a range of questions regarding that action, but never received a response. 

"What we know, and what the WikiLeaks cable confirms, is that Yemen clearly lied to its people and to the world, and the United States thereby avoided a response," he told IPS. 

An alleged al-Qaeda training camp at al-Ma’jalah, Abyan, was hit by a cruise missile on Dec. 17, 2009. A Yemeni parliamentary inquiry found that 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children, and 14 alleged al-Qaeda members were killed in the attack. 

In the Jan. 4 cable, 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 U.S.-sourced cluster munitions and the Tomahawk cruise missiles used to deliver them. 

The organization had requested information from the Pentagon about the involvement of U.S. forces in the al-Ma’jalah attack, and what precautions may have been taken to minimize deaths and injuries. 

The U.S. 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 U.S. declined to comment on the strike and that questions on operations against al-Qaeda 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 U.S. involvement," said Philip Luther, AI’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. "Those responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice." 

The "Arhab" strike referred to in the secret cable was carried out on Dec. 17, 2009 and the "Shebwa" strike on Dec. 24, 2009. The Yemeni government insisted at the time that their forces had carried out all three attacks, which were meant to target al-Qaeda 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 U.S. fixed-wing bombers circle outside Yemeni territory ready to engage targets "should actionable intelligence become available", according to the cable, and also requested that Washington provide 12 armed helicopters and train and equip three new Republican Guard brigades, totaling 9,000 soldiers. 

He complained that Yemeni forces had not yet received the necessary training to operate 17 "Iraqi" light armored vehicles provided by the U.S. government in 2008. 

The leaked cable says that U.S. security assistance to Yemen would substantially increase from $67 million in 2009 to $150 million in 2010, including $45 million to equip and train an aviation regiment under the Yemeni Special Operations Forces. 

U.S. officials 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. 

U.S. forces are also alleged to have used unmanned aerial drones in Yemen in efforts to kill suspected leading al-Qaeda members. An attack in May 2010 which apparently killed in error a key mediator between the Yemeni government and al-Qaeda 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 U.S. 

Amnesty International is not aware that any outcome to the investigation has been disclosed.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: William Fisher

William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.