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Somalia: US airstrikes are killing civilians, according to watchdogs

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  • Since the start of the year, the US has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Somalia, where it is battling the extremist group Al-Shabaab.
  • Amnesty International says the airstrikes are not just killing “terrorists,” but innocent civilians. A new report details two strikes in February 2020 that it says, respectively, killed a farmer and a young woman sitting down to eat.
  • The US military has only admitted to killing two civilians in over a decade of airstrikes in Somalia.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

US President Donald Trump wants to be seen as both reluctant to start a war but also, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, as a tough, war-time president. But even as his administration has pivoted to addressing COVID-19, the commander in chief has also dramatically escalated a real-life deployment of air power in Somalia — one that, according to locals and researchers at Amnesty International, is killing civilians with impunity.

“Reality does not match Trump’s rhetoric,” Daphne Eviatar, director of Amnesty International’s security with human rights program, told Business Insider. Despite the occasional tweet against “forever wars,” there has been an “escalation of strikes in Somalia, and [a] huge spike in numbers of civilians killed by US strikes, in Somalia and elsewhere, since 2017.”

In a new release, Amnesty details some of that alleged body count. In a February 2 airstrike, the group claims, based on interviews with witnesses and local officials, that an “air-dropped weapon” fell on a family of five that was sitting down for dinner, killing an 18-year-old woman, Nurto Kusow Omar Abukar. The strike also allegedly injured her two younger sisters, aged 12 and 7.

“I never imagined it was going to hit us,” their father, Kusow Omar Abukar, told Amnesty. His mother, 70-year-old Khadija Mohamed Gedow, was also injured. “It felt like our house had collapsed,” he said. “The sand and the smoke filled my eyes.”

Another US airstrike, on February 24, killed a 53-year-old banana farmer, Mohamud Salad Mohamud, Amnesty alleges.

“Nothing can excuse flouting the laws of war,” said Abdullahi Hassan, a researcher at Amnesty, urging the military to “take all feasible protections to avoid harm to civilians.”

US Africa Command Command, which oversees military operations in Somalia, did not immediately return a request for comment.

Trump increases attacks, loosens civilian safeguards

In March 2017, Trump granted increased authority for the military to carry out strikes in Somalia, which began under the administration of George W. Bush, The New York Times revealed. “That sets the stage for an intensified pace of combat there while increasing the risk that American forces could kill civilians,” the paper stated.

Since his inauguration, there have been at least 234 reported airstrikes in Somalia, according to Airwars, a UK-based monitor, with 43 involving allegations of civilian casualties, around half of which the group has deemed credible. With 38 so far this year, the Trump administration is on pace to carry out 152 airstrikes in Somalia this year, nearly double the total in 2019, per Airwars’ count.

In his last year in office, US President Barack Obama oversaw 24 airstrikes.

The attacks have targeted a terrorist group, Al-Shabaab, that has itself killed scores of innocent civilians to topple the country’s government.

The US military, however, has only once admitted to killing any civilians in Somalia. That was nearly a year ago when it announced that two civilians had been killed in an April 1, 2018 attack. 

In a press release confirming the deaths, US Africa Command, which oversees military operations in Somalia, admitted that it had launched a review of the post-Trump air campaign, in part, because of “continued interest by Amnesty International and Congress on civilian casualties.”

A month before that admission, an Amnesty report, “The Hidden US War in Somalia,” detailed incidents in which it said 14 civilians had been killed and another eight seriously injured since Trump took office.

US Africa Command did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But in a March 31 press release, US Army General Stephen Townsend pledged to release an updated review of its airstrikes’ toll on innocent life. 

“To demonstrate our transparency and commitment to protecting civilians from unnecessary harm, we plan to publicize our initial report by the end of April,” he said, “and we will provide quarterly updates thereafter.”

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