U.S. Acknowledges Airstrike in Somalia Caused Civilian Deaths

By Thomas Gibbons-Neff

WASHINGTON — After denying allegations last month that United States airstrikes had killed civilians in Somalia, the American military said on Friday that an April 2018 attack left two people dead.

The announcement comes after Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the head of Africa Command, ordered a review of all airstrikes conducted in Somalia since 2017.

The internal assessment was prompted by pressure from lawmakers and an Amnesty International report released last month that found evidence of five strikes in Somalia that had killed more than a dozen civilians.

The two civilians were killed in an April 2018 airstrike against the Islamist extremist group Shabab near El Buur, a town in central Somalia. In a statement on Friday, Africa Command said it “found credible evidence” of the deaths shortly after the strike, but the casualties were not reported to senior officials until last week.

The airstrike was not mentioned in the Amnesty report.

“Because of the reporting error, U.S. Africa Command was not informed of the assessment’s conclusion — and subsequently the information was not reported to external authorities, such as the host nation and Congress,” the military statement said.

It called the mistake an “isolated occurrence” and said the error was “being addressed.”

Last month, Africa Command rejected the conclusions in the Amnesty report. “Our assessments found that no Africom airstrike resulted in any civilian casualty or injury,” it said in a statement.

It was not the first time Africa Command, based in Germany, had misreported events in conflict zones.

After an October 2017 ambush in Niger that left four American soldiers dead, Africa Command officials were initially unable to clarify what type of mission an 11-man Green Beret team was undertaking when it was confronted by Islamic State fighters.

In a statement on Friday, Amnesty called the new findings in Somalia an important “first step” but criticized the American military’s reporting process for civilian casualties.

“We still need new investigation procedures, and all cases of civilian casualties we have documented reinvestigated,” the statement said.

Because of the presence of Shabab fighters in contested areas, Defense Department officials acknowledged that it was difficult to verify civilian casualties from airstrikes, and said they often relied on overhead surveillance and communication intercepts to verify what happened on the ground.

In recent years, the Shabab has grown and spread across Somalia. The group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda in 2012. In 2017, President Trump gave the American military more authority to strike Shabab fighters.

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