A rickety Toyota truck packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda. Suddenly a missile hurtled from the sky and flipped the vehicle over.
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-Qaeda militants and that its Soviet-era jets had carried out the Sept. 2 attack. But tribal leaders and Yemeni officials would later say that it was an American assault and that all the victims were civilians who lived in a village near Radda, in central Yemen. 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 and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse. “How could this happen? None of us were al-Qaeda.”
More than three months later, the incident offers a window into the Yemeni government’s efforts to conceal Washington’s mistakes and the unintended consequences of civilian deaths in American air assaults.
Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its assertion that militants had been killed. The apparent target, Yemeni officials and tribal leaders said, was a senior regional al-Qaeda leader, 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 weak government has often tried to hide civilian casualties from the public, fearing repercussions in a nation where hostility toward U.S. policies is widespread. 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 ‘counterterrorism’ fight in this strategic Middle Eastern country.
In response to questions, U.S. officials in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said it was a Defense Department aircraft, either a drone or a fixed-wing warplane, that fired on the truck. The Pentagon declined to comment on the incident, as did senior U.S. officials in Yemen and senior counterterrorism officials in Washington.
Public outrage is also growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.
“If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages,” said Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, the truck’s driver, 45, who suffered burns and bruises. “I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”
This year, there have been at least 38 U.S. airstrikes in Yemen, according to the Long War Journal, a nonprofit Web site that tracks American drone attacks. That is significantly more than in any year since 2009, when President Obama is thought to have ordered the first drone strike.
The Radda attack was one of the deadliest since a U.S. cruise missile strike in December 2009 killed dozens of civilians, including women and children, in the mountainous region of al-Majala in southern Yemen. After that attack, many tribesmen in that area became radicalized and joined AQAP.
The concern over civilian casualties has grown louder since the spring, when the White House broadened its definition of militants who can be targeted in Yemen to include those who may not be well-known.
In recent months, villagers in Sabool, about 10 miles from Radda, said they have heard U.S. drones fly over the area as many as three or four times a day. Some described them as “little white planes.”
“It burns my blood every time I see or hear the airplanes,” said Ali Ali Ahmed Mukhbil, 40, a farmer. “All they have accomplished is destruction and fear among the people.”
On that September morning, his brother Masood stepped into the Toyota truck in Sabool. It was filled with villagers heading to Radda to sell khat, a leafy narcotic chewed by most Yemeni males. After they sold their produce, they headed back in the afternoon.
Nasser Ahmed Abdurabu Rubaih, a 26-year-old khat farmer, was working in the valley when he heard the explosions. He ran to the site and, like others, threw sand into the burning vehicle to douse the flames. As he sifted through the charred bodies on the road, he recognized his brother, Abdullah, from his clothes.
“I lost my mind,” Rubaih recalled.
Mukhbil’s brother Masood also was dead.
‘Trying to kill the case’
Some witnesses said that they saw three planes in the sky, two black and one white, and that the black ones were Yemeni jets. But both missiles struck the moving vehicle directly, and the terrain surrounding the truck was not scorched — hallmarks of a precision strike from a sophisticated American aircraft.
“If you say it wasn’t a U.S. drone, nobody will believe you,” said Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, a former Yemeni prime minister who is a senior adviser to Hadi. “A Yemeni pilot to be able to hit a specific vehicle that’s moving? Impossible.”
The Yemeni government publicly apologized for the attack and sent 101 guns to tribal leaders in the area as a symbolic gesture, which in Yemeni culture is an admission of guilt. But a government inquiry into the strike appears to be stalled, human rights activists and lawmakers said.
For the past three months, lawmakers have unsuccessfully demanded that senior government officials reveal who was responsible for the attack. Yemen’s defense and interior ministries, Hadi’s office, and the attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Washington played a crucial role in ousting Saleh and installing Hadi, a former defense minister.
The United States also provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the military and security forces in ‘counterterrorism’ assistance. U.S. officials regard Hadi as an even stauncher ‘counterterrorism’ ally than Saleh.
“The government is trying to kill the case,” said Abdul Rahman Berman, the executive director of the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, or HOOD, a local human rights group. “The government wants to protect its relations with the U.S.”
After the 2009 strike in al-Majala, the Yemeni government took responsibility for the assault.
“We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Saleh told Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was then the head of U.S. Central Command, according to a U.S. Embassy e-mail leaked by the anti-secrecy Web site WikiLeaks.
Three weeks after the Radda attack, Hadi visited Washington and praised the accuracy of U.S. drone strikes in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters, as well as publicly.
“They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you’re aiming at,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
‘That’s why we are fighting’
The day after the attack, tribesmen blocked the roads around Radda and stormed government buildings. They set up a large tent and held a gathering to denounce the government and the United States. Fliers handed out around town read: “See what the government has done? That’s why we are fighting. . . . They are the agents of America and the enemy of Islam. . . . They fight whoever says ‘There is no god but Allah,’ according to America’s instructions.”
At the funeral, some mourners chanted “America is a killer,” said Mohammed al-Ahmadi, a human rights activist who attended.
A few days later, at a gathering, relatives of the victims urged Yemeni officials to be careful about the intelligence they provided to the Americans. “Do not rush to kill innocent people,” declared Mohammed Mukhbil al-Sabooly, a village elder, in testimony that was videotaped. “If such attacks continue, they will make us completely lose our trust in the existence of a state.”
Ahmed Saleh Ahmed al-Duqari lost two of his cousins in the Sept. 2 U.S. airstrike that killed 12 civilians near the town of Radda, Yemen.
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