December 25, 2012

Yemen tries to hide U.S. role in airstrike

U.S. officials acknowledge that 13 civilian deaths resulted from an American missile attack on a truck.

By SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN, The Washington Post

DHAMAR, Yemen - A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, Yemen, which al-Qaida 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-Qaida militants and that its own Soviet-era jets carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But survivors, tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that the victims were all 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. "How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaida."

More than three months later, the incident offers a window on 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-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the terror 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 claim that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaida 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 war against terrorism in this strategic Middle Eastern country.

In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck.

 

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