Yemen villagers join al-Qaeda after deadly US drone strike kills children
By Sudarsan Raghavan
A RICKETY TRUCK packed with 14 people rumbled down a desert road from the town of Radda, which al-Qaeda militants once controlled.
Suddenly a missile struck flipping the vehicle over. Then a second missile hit the truck.
Within seconds, 11 of the passengers were dead, including a woman and her seven-year-old daughter. A 12-year-old boy also died that day, and another man later died from his wounds.
The Yemeni government initially said that those killed were al-Qaeda militants and that its own Soviet-era jets carried out the September 2 attack. But last week US officials acknowledged for the first time that it was an American strike and that the victims were civilians.
Furious tribesmen tried to take the bodies to the gates of the presidential residence, forcing the government into the rare position of withdrawing its claim that militants had been killed.
The apparent target was the senior regional al-Qaeda leader Abdelrauf al-Dahab, thought to be travelling on the same road.
The two survivors and relatives of six victims, interviewed separately and speaking to a Western journalist, said they would be willing to support or even fight alongside al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula.
''If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge,'' said Nasser Mabkhoot al-Sabooly, the truck's driver who suffered burns and bruises. ''I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostages.''
''The people are against the indiscriminate use of the drones,'' the Yemeni Foreign Minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, said. ''And more important, they want to have some transparency as far as what's going on - from everybody.''
In January, militants linked to al-Qaeda briefly seized Radda, about 160 kilometres south of the capital, Sanaa. They left after the government agreed to their demands and released several extremists from prison. By the northern summer, al-Qaeda had also been pushed from towns in southern Yemen after a US-backed offensive initiated by the President, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who took office this year after a popular uprising.
Recently villagers in Sabul, about 15 kilometres from Radda, reported hearing US drones fly over the area, often up to four times a day. ''It burns my blood every time I see or hear the airplanes,'' said Ali Ahmed Mukhbil, a 40-year-old farmer.
Nasser Rubaih, a 26-year-old farmer, was working in the valley on the day the truck was hit. He heard the explosions and ran to the site and, like others, threw sand into the burning vehicle to douse the flames. As he sifted through the charred bodies lying on the road, he recognised his brother Abdullah from his clothes. Mr Mukhbil's brother Masood was also dead.
The Yemeni government publicly apologised for the attack and sent 101 guns to tribal leaders in the area, which in Yemeni culture is an admission of guilt. But a government inquiry into the strike appears to be stalled. After a December 2009 air strike killed dozens of civilians in the southern town of al-Majala, the government also took responsibility.
''We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,'' the then dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh told General David Petraeus, then the head of US Central Command, according to a US embassy email leaked by WikiLeaks.
Three weeks after the Radda attack, Mr Hadi visited Washington and praised the accuracy of US drone strikes. ''They pinpoint the target and have zero margin of error, if you know what target you're aiming at,'' he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.