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Amnesty: US in denial over killing civilians in Somalia

April 1, 2020

Human rights group Amnesty has accused the US military of living in denial about civilian casualties due to airstrikes in Somalia. The number of operations against al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab has risen sharply since 2016.

Mourning relatives of victims of attack by Somali forces, supported by US
Image: Reuters/F. Omar

US airstrikes in Somalia killed two civilians in February alone, the human rights organization Amnesty said on Wednesday, accusing American military officials of a lack of transparency about their operations.

An attack on February 2 hit a family having a meal, Amnesty said, killing one 18-year-old and injuring two of her sisters. In another airstrike on February 24, a 53-year-old father of eight was killed. 

After both airstrikes, the US military said it had killed fighters from the Islamist group al-Shabab, which is fighting to oust the Somali government and establish a society based on a rigid interpretation of Islamic sharia law.

However, Amnesty said the US military's African Command (AFRICOM) was guilty of depicting its civilian victims as terrorists. 

Abdullahi Hassan, Amnesty International's Somalia researcher, said in a statement that AFRICOM should be more transparent about how it investigates allegations of civilian deaths.

"They seem to be living in denial that the airstrikes actually kill civilians," said Hassan. "The US military should not be allowed to continue to paint its civilian victims as 'terrorists' while leaving grieving families in the lurch." 

The airstrikes examined in the latest Amnesty report came in the weeks following a devastating al-Shabab attack on an airstrip in neighboring Kenya used by US forces.

Read more: Could Kenya annex chunks of Somalia?

'Damning evidence'

In a report a year ago, Amnesty described how 14 civilians had been killed in just five airstrikes in the previous two years. However, the US has only admitted to killing civilians in a single strike two years ago, the organization said. 

"The evidence is stacking up and it's pretty damning. Not only does AFRICOM utterly fail at its mission to report civilian casualties in Somalia, but it doesn't seem to care about the fate of the numerous families it has completely torn apart," said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa. 

Just ahead of the Amnesty report release in February, AFRICOM announced that it would increase transparency starting that month by issuing a quarterly report on its assessments of allegations of civilian deaths and injuries.

Still posing a threat

Almost a decade after African peacekeeping forces pushed the group out of Mogadishu, al-Shabab still poses a threat and has become versatile in guerrilla tactics and manufacturing bombs. 

Backed by African Union and Turkish troops, the Somali Army has liberated key towns from the militants. However, the group sometimes retakes those towns immediately afterward because of the government's inability to securely govern them.

Airstrikes by the US in Somalia increased in 2019, with American planes carrying out 64 such strikes on the militants in the war-torn country.

An increase in airstrikes under the Trump administration has crippled the group's activities but have not been able to force it to capitulate. 

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