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US accepts responsibility for airstrikes on civilians

Reuters, WASHINGTON

Protesters loyal to the Shiite al-Houthi rebel group burn an effigy of a US aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is US interference in Yemen, including drone strikes, in the Old Sanaa city, Yemen, on April 12, 2013.

Photo: Reuters

US President Barack Obama’s government on Friday accepted responsibility for inadvertently killing up to 116 civilians in airstrikes in countries where the US is not at war, a major disclosure likely to inflame debate about targeted killings and the use of drones.

Obama’s goal for the release of the numbers, which are higher than any previously acknowledged by his government, but vastly below private estimates, is to create greater transparency about what the US military and CIA are doing to fight militants plotting against the nation.

However, the figures, which covered strikes from the day Obama took office in January 2009 through Dec. 31 last year, were below even the most conservative estimates by non-governmental organizations that spent years tallying US strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

“The numbers reported by the White House today simply don’t add up and we’re disappointed by that,” Center for Civilians in Conflict executive director Federico Borello said.

Drone advocates, including those within the US military, argue the strikes are an essential part of reducing the ability of militant groups to plot attacks against the US. They say the government goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Critics of the targeted killing program question whether the strikes create more militants than they kill. They cite the spread of extremist organizations and militant attacks throughout the world as evidence that targeted killings might be exacerbating the problem.

“We’re still faced with the basic question: Is the number of bad guys who are taken out of commission by drone strikes greater or less than the number of people who are inspired to turn to violent acts?” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA specialist on the Middle East and a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who says he represents 100 families of civilians killed by drones, questioned the validity of the data.

“President Obama is worried about his legacy as a president who ordered extra-judicial killings of thousands, which resulted in a high number of civilian deaths,” Akbar said. “As a constitutional lawyer himself, he knows what’s wrong with that.”

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