U.S. Bombs May Have Killed 41 Civilians in Yemen, Amnesty Says

The U.S. military probably carried out an attack on an alleged al-Qaeda training camp in Yemen in December that killed 41 civilians, Amnesty International said.

The London-based rights group posted photographs on its website today of what it identified as damaged parts of a BGM-109D Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile, a weapon it says is only held by the U.S., taken after the Dec. 17 attack. It showed another image of an unexploded BLU 97 A/B cluster bomb of the kind carried by BGM-109D missiles. Yemen had said its own forces had carried out the strike.

“Based on the evidence provided by these photographs, the U.S. government must disclose what role it played in the attack and all governments involved must show what steps they took to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries,” Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a statement.

The attack in the southern Abyan province came a week before the local branch of al-Qaeda tried to blow up a U.S. airliner. The U.S. has applied increasing pressure on Yemen to crack down on the group. An air strike on May 24 mistakenly killed a regional official, provoking armed clashes with tribesmen.

Yemen, located at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the poorest Arab country, has become a base for al-Qaeda attacks on Western targets and on neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter.

Al-Qaeda’s Yemeni-based wing claimed responsibility for the Dec. 25 plot in which Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with 278 passengers as it approached Detroit.

‘Grossly Irresponsible’

The December air strike killed 55 people, including 14 women and 21 children, and 14 alleged members of al-Qaeda, according to Amnesty.

“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,” Luther said.

Neither Yemen nor the U.S. have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a treaty designed to ban such weapons which is due to enter into force on August 1, 2010, said Amnesty.

The U.S. Embassy in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and the State Department in Washington were not immediately available for comment. Amnesty said it had requested information from the Pentagon about the role of U.S. forces in the strike but had not received a response.

Yemeni Deputy Prime Minister Rashad al-Alimi on March 3 apologized for the air strike and promised compensation for the victims’ families. Authorities have said the operation targeted a meeting of leading al-Qaeda figures. Al-Alimi’s office wasn’t immediately available to comment today.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said in comments published yesterday that while Yemen exchanged intelligence with the U.S., it is Yemeni forces which take the final decisions on any strikes against terrorist targets.

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