Storm brews over civilian deaths in US air strikes in Somalia

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Attacks likely carried out by US drones and piloted gunships have killed at least 14 Somali civilians in the two years since President Donald Trump eased targeting restrictions in Somalia, Amnesty International said on Wednesday.

“The attacks appear to have violated international humanitarian law, and some may amount to war crimes,” the human rights advocacy group commented in releasing its 73-page report titled The Hidden US War in Somalia.

The Africa Command (Africom), which oversees most US military operations in Somalia, has consistently denied that civilian deaths have resulted from any of the more than 100 airstrikes conducted in the past two years.

Africom says it has confirmed the killings of hundreds of Al-Shabaab militants in those attacks.

The US is keen to avoid civilian casualties partly because the killing of non-combatants serves to promote recruitment by Al-Shabaab.

But Amnesty International says that it has documented civilian deaths in its research into just five air attacks in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region.

“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests [that] the shroud of secrecy surrounding the US role in Somalia’s war is actually a smokescreen for impunity,” Brian Castner, an Amnesty expert adviser, said.

“Our findings directly contradict the US military’s mantra of zero civilian casualties in Somalia,” Mr Castner added.

“That claim seems all the more fanciful when you consider the USA has tripled its air strikes across the country since 2016, outstripping their strikes in Libya and Yemen combined.”


Satellite imagery taken on December 3, 2017 shows a small junction in Lower Shabelle approximately 100 kilometres west of Mogadishu, Somalia. The road passes through a small village, Illimey. On December 6, 2017 an explosion occurred in the hamlet of Illimey, killing five civilians. PHOTO | DIGITAL GLOBE

Amnesty is calling for the US and Somalia governments to conduct “urgent and transparent investigations” of the air war in Somalia.

The chances of civilian casualties in air strikes may have increased as a result of President Trump’s March 2017 declaration of Somalia as an “area of active hostilities”, Amnesty suggests.

Retired Brig Gen Donald Bolduc, the head of Special Operations Command Africa from April 2015 to June 2017, told Amnesty researchers that the new US policy allows targets to be deemed lawful solely on the basis of four criteria: age, gender, location and geographic proximity to Shabaab fighters.

“According to General Bolduc, all military-aged males observed with known Al-Shabaab members, inside specific areas — areas in which the US military has deemed the population to be supporting or sympathetic to Al-Shabaab — are now considered legitimate military targets,” the Amnesty report states.

Brig Gen Bolduc’s assertion “does not accurately reflect the targeting standards” of US forces in Somalia, Africom said in response. “Unfortunately,” Africom added, “providing additional detail on this topic would not be possible due to operational security reasons”.

Amnesty says it has compiled “credible evidence” showing that four of the strikes were carried out by US aircraft and that the fifth was “most plausibly” conducted by the US.

The group notes that Kenya and Ethiopia are the only two members of the African Union Mission in Somalia that operate armed combat aircraft in Somalia.

And Kenyan and Ethiopian warplanes carry out attacks in regions of Somalia other than Lower Shabelle, the report adds.

In one of the incidents recounted by Amnesty, a US drone targeted a suspected Shabaab vehicle traveling between the towns of Awdheegle and Barire on October 16, 2017.


Imagery taken on February 7, 2017 shows the Farah Waeys settlement lying either side of the main road connecting the towns of Awdheegle and Barire in Somalia. On October 16, 2017 a US armed drone targeted a vehicle carrying suspected Al-Shabaab fighters. The first strike missed, hitting the Farah Waeys settlement and killing two civilians and injuring five civilians. PHOTO | DIGITAL GLOBE

The report says this strike killed two civilians, but Africom responded that its own assessment of the attack “determined it is not likely to have caused civilian casualties”.

In another case, a US air strike near the village of Darusalaam is said by Amnesty to have to killed three local farmers in the early hours of November 12, 2017.

Africom confirmed that it carried out an air attack in the area at that date and time, and claimed it killed “several” militants.

On December 6, 2017, five civilians, including two children, were killed when a suspected Shabaab lorry exploded as it passed through the hamlet of Illimey on December 6, 2017, the report states.

“While Africom categorically denies having launched the attack on Illimey, there is compelling evidence that an air strike was involved, and a US security agency may be responsible,” Amnesty adds.

Three Somali civilians and one suspected Shabaab member died in a US drone strike on August 2, 2018, in a rural area near the village of Gobanle, Amnesty reports.

Africom said it did carry out a “precision-guided strike that corresponds to the time and location alleged, targeting individuals who were members of Al-Shabaab.” Claims of civilian deaths are not credible, Africom added.

A farmer was killed in a US air strike near the village of Baladul-Rahma early on December 9, 2018, the report charges.

Africom confirmed to Amnesty that it conducted an attack at that time and place, but did not say whether anyone was known to have died in that strike.

Amnesty says its reporting is partly the product of more than 150 interviews with eyewitnesses and relatives, as well as with expert sources, including some in the US military.

The group adds that it analysed corroborating evidence, such as satellite imagery and munition fragments.

Amnesty points out that security concerns and access restrictions prevented its researchers from conducting on-site investigations of the attacks, which took place in Shabaab-controlled territory.

“The research for this report was conducted from government-controlled areas in-person in Somalia and remotely, from outside of Somalia,” Amnesty states.


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Publish date : 2019-03-20 15:09:25

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