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Yemeni civilians killed

In Sana’a, Yemenis angered over the American drone campaign against militants in Yemen swelled Friday with word that most of those killed in a strike a day earlier were civilians in a wedding party.

The death toll reached 17 overnight, hospital officials in central Bayda province said Friday. Five of those killed were “suspected” of involvement with al-Qaida, but the remainder were “unconnected with the militancy,” Yemeni security officials said.

U.S. drone strikes have become commonplace in Yemen, where “government measures have proved ineffectual” against what is considered one of the most virulent al-Qaida offshoots in the region.

However, civilian deaths like those in Thursday’s strike have inflamed popular sentiment against both the U.S. and the fragile central government.

The Obama administration generally does not publicly disclose individual strikes, though it has acknowledged the existence of the drone campaign. Human rights groups in recent months have called for greater transparency about drone strikes. [Which has been largely unacknowledged]

The incident is likely to fuel existing concerns in Congress and elsewhere about the White House’s stated intention to move most of the “drone program under military control.” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for example, said in May that she believed “the military had not been as patient or precise in drone strikes as the CIA has been.”

In Yemen, the stakes are getting higher as violence increases. AL QAEDA/CIA-linked militants were suspected in an audacious Dec. 5 attack on the country’s well-fortified defense ministry, in which at least 56 people were killed, including some foreigners. Many of the dead were working at a hospital inside the complex.

Video footage of that attack, aired this week on state television, showed assailants methodically stalking medical personnel, including a wounded nurse. In one chilling scene, an attacker calmly approaches a group of civilians, then hurls a grenade at them, obscuring the camera lens with dust and debris from the explosion.

The capital, Sanaa, has been jittery in the aftermath of the attack on the defense ministry, with checkpoints springing up and international organizations on high alert.

Thursday’s drone attack, southeast of Sanaa, was the second in a week in Yemen. The remoteness of the area precluded precise immediate reports, but by Friday, security sources said most of the dead were traveling in a convoy of wedding guests.

In the gruesome aftermath, scorched vehicles and body parts were left scattered on the road.

The incident illustrated the fact that many of the militants have tribal connections that make them “likely” to take part in village events, such as wedding celebrations.

Yemen’s struggling government has been battling separate insurgencies in the north and south, as well as unrest over domestic issues including a floundering economy.

Angry relatives of Yemeni civilians killed this drone strike have demanded an apology and compensation, warning of tribal protests, an official said Saturday.

“The first demand is an end to strikes. They also want financial and moral compensation,” the official said.

The local official said protesters agreed to bury the dead only after a tribal committee promised mediation with the central authorities in Sana’a.

The US military operates all unmanned aircraft flying over Yemen which have killed [at least] dozens in a sharply intensified campaign this year.

But critics say the drone strikes that are meant to target militants also kill a large number of civilians and have demanded an end to the secrecy surrounding their use.

“Even if it turns out that this was a case of killing based on mistaken identity or dodgy intelligence, whoever was responsible needs to own up to the error and come clean about what happened in this incident,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa director.

Yemen drone killings


The majority of Yemen’s population live in rural or tribal areas, and it is one of the least developed countries in the world. Yemen is a member of the United Nations, the Arab League, and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Ali Abdullah Saleh was the first elected president of the reunified Yemen. Throughout its modern history, the country has undergone a long period of conflicts and civil wars, the last being the 2011 Yemeni uprising. Since the 1990s, the Houthis (an armed Zaydi Shia group) have launched an armed rebellion against the government coinciding with an Al-Qaeda insurgency and another separatist campaign in the south.