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Human rights group says two US strikes have killed Somali civilians

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WASHINGTON Two US air strikes in Somalia in February killed two civilians and injured three others, according to Amnesty International, a human rights group, in a new report. The United States Command for Africa acknowledged that the strikes had taken place, but said it had killed only terrorists from the Qaeda-affiliated group, Al Shabab.

The strikes were part of a series of US airstrikes targeting Shabab after it raided an air base in Manda Bay, Kenya in January, killing three Americans and causing millions of dollars in damage.

There can be no excuse for disregarding the laws of war, said Abdullahi Hassan, researcher at Amnesty International in Somalia. Any response by the United States or Somali government to the Al Shabab attacks must distinguish between combatants and civilians and take all possible precautions to avoid harming civilians.

Without going into details, Africa Command, or Africom, said it was investigating the allegations. Military officials said the command had done everything possible to minimize civilian casualties in its longstanding struggle against the Shabab.

Disputes over civilian casualties are common in Somalia, where many are troubled. Africom reveals strikes but generally no details beyond their location and its assessment that it has hit only terrorists and no civilians. Officials tend to refute allegations of spectator deaths by signaling intelligence reports that cannot be released due to classification.

There have been previous allegations that were incorrect, said Colonel Christopher P. Karns, spokesperson for the African Command. Basically, no one wants to believe that a colleague or loved one is a member of Al Shabab because of what this group is capable of and the void it represents.

He said that the ability of Shabab activists to blend into society means that allegations of civilian casualties do not always correspond to the facts and reality.

In a statement Tuesday, Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, the commanding officer of Africom, said the command was reviewing and revising its tracking and reporting on civilian casualties. It will release new findings by the end of April, he said, and will release quarterly updates in the future.

The strikes tend to take place in territories controlled by Shabab, which makes the regions too dangerous for human rights investigators or journalists. Amnesty said its researchers had interviewed witnesses by telephone and studied photographs of the scenes and satellite images to draw their conclusions.

The United States has carried out occasional counterterrorism air strikes in Somalia for more than a dozen years, but the frequency has increased dramatically under the Trump administration and continues to increase. The African Command disclosed 63 strikes last year, up from the previous record of 47 in 2018.

This year is set to break a new record, with around 32 to date.

The first mission criticized by the Amnesty report was an air strike on February 2 near the town of Jilib. An Africom press release said the strike killed a terrorist and no civilian. A website that Amnesty described as friendly for Shabab said strike killed disabled girl and injured his mother and sister. But neither of the two reports was accurate, the group said.

Instead, he says, the strike struck a house where a family of five had just sat down for dinner. He said that a young woman, Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar, 18, was killed after being struck in the head by a piece of metal. Her grandmother and two younger sisters were injured by shrapnel but survived, the report said.

Al Shabab fully controls Jilib and the group members live in houses in the city, the report said. It is plausible that Africom is targeting a neighboring residence that could have contained members of Al Shabab.

The report quoted the girl’s father, Kusow Omar Abukar, who he said was unharmed, describing the explosion. He described him as a 50-year-old farmer whose relatives said he was not a member of Al Shabab.

The other strike criticized in the report took place on February 24, several kilometers north of Jilib. A command for Africa Press release the revelation of the strike indicated that it had killed a terrorist and no civilian.

Colonel Karns said that Africom is examining the strikes. We have a few allegations that we consider open and are still investigating, he said. We want to do it right.

The Amnesty International report identified the dead man as Mohamud Salad Mohamud and stated that he was a banana farmer and a branch manager for a telecommunications company. Mohamud had just returned from Mogadishu for several weeks, including for a medical appointment, according to the report, adding that his researcher had seen the medical records.

He also cited two officials from the telecommunications company denying that Mr. Mohamud was a member of Al Shabab. They also said that the group arrested him several times for disobeying his instructions.

The report describes a horrific scene from the assassination of Mr. Mohamuds, claiming that Amnesty reviewed the photographs of the aftermath. He left behind a wife and eight children, he said.

Amnesty has a history of disagreements with the African Command over whether its strikes in Somalia have killed civilians. A year ago, the group released a report saying it had found evidence of 14 civilian deaths from five airstrikes since 2017 when President Trump relaxed targeting rules to protect civilians in the face of a major escalation in the drone war.

Africom, which had made no civilian casualties in its press releases revealing the strikes, disputed the findings. But a month later, the command issued a rare mea culpa, claiming that its own records showed that an April 2018 attack had killed two civilians, contrary to its press release on the strike.

The discovery of this gap followed an internal review of all air strikes since 2007 ordered by General Thomas D. Waldhauser, Commander Africoms at the time, due to Amnesty International’s March 2019 report. In addition, the strike that Africom admitted late to kill two civilians was not among those identified by the human rights group.

Eric Schmitt contributed to the report.

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