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U.S. Raid Killed Yemeni Civilians, Villagers Say


A report now from a battleground where U.S. Special Forces are going after suspected terrorists. It's Yemen. When U.S. Special Forces raided a remote Yemeni village back in May, the military said they killed seven members of al-Qaida. Yemeni human rights activists reported that several civilians were also killed or wounded. Some of the survivors told their stories of that night to NPR's Ruth Sherlock on a rare visit to Yemen. And her reporting has already had an impact.

OTHMAN AL-ADHAL: (Speaking Arabic).

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Othman al-Adhal is 12. He's got brown curly hair and these captivating green eyes. He says that on the night of the raid, it was too hot to sleep indoors, so he went to lie under the stars.

OTHMAN: (Through interpreter) I was sleeping outside under my mosquito net, and I heard them. They shot me, so I screamed for my mother.

SHERLOCK: Othman shows the scars from a bullet on his forearms. Then to pick up the story, Abdulrahman Saeed al-Adhal, an older relative, tells us what happened next.

ABDULRAHMAN SAEED AL-ADHAL: (Through interpreter) Othman ran inside the house to his mother. There he found two of his brothers had also been shot. They bled slowly to death. So Othman's mother was there with two of her sons killed and one of them injured, but she was too afraid to move until the sun came up.

SHERLOCK: He said soldiers arrived at about 1:30 in the morning. They raided homes, and Apache helicopters and drones fired from the sky. He says one man was shot to death in his bed.

A. AL-ADHAL: (Through interpreter) He was sleeping next to his wife when he was shot. The blood was pouring out of him, and his wife wrapped her arms around him and begged him to keep quiet. She was afraid someone would hear his groans and come back to kill her, too.

SHERLOCK: The Pentagon says it targeted a compound belonging to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. It says U.S. SEAL teams killed seven militants and that there are no credible indications of civilian casualties. The villagers say they can't rule out that some militants may have died that night. Some made oblique references to strangers who might have overnighted in a house on the village outskirts. But what they are sure of is that civilians like 12-year-old Othman, like the man killed in his bed and like another victim who was in his 70s also paid a heavy price. Locals, as well as human rights researchers, say that five civilians died that night. Abdulrahman insists none were connected to al-Qaida.

A. AL-ADHAL: (Through interpreter) All those who've been killed are either farmers or soldiers in the Yemeni army.

SHERLOCK: I met Othman Adhal's family during a trip to the Yemeni city of Marib that was organized by a think tank run by Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni who's testified before Congress on the effects of drone strikes in his country. He's also done reporting for NPR. I brought the Adhals' story to Colonel John J. Thomas from Central Command. He says that, following the inquiry by NPR, the Pentagon is now reassessing their findings.

JOHN J. THOMAS: We take seriously all reports of unintended civilian casualties. And when we're made aware of information suggesting evidence of civilian casualties, we look into those reports. In this case, having these new details, the appropriate unit commander is initiating a reassessment of the case.

SHERLOCK: Sarah Knuckey, a Columbia University law professor and expert in U.S. counter terrorism, was also on the Yemen trip and met with the Adhal family. She says families injured like this need to be compensated.

SARAH KNUCKEY: If they find civilian harm - that they need to publicly acknowledge their responsibility for that civilian harm and then offer a payment to those who were injured or the families of those who were killed.

SHERLOCK: But Knuckey says documented cases of compensation are rare. And Yemenis say that's part of what drives people to join al-Qaida.

KNUCKEY: (Foreign language spoken).

SHERLOCK: During the trip, I meet with leaders of Yemen's tribes from around the region. We sit on low cushions in a brightly colored Bedouin tent. I ask them if they believe that these kinds of raids and drone strikes are effective. Sheikh Ali Abd-Rabbu al-Qadhi, a tribal leader, says there are better ways to ostracize the extremists, like through tribal networks.

SHEIKH ALI ABD-RABBU AL-QADHI: (Through interpreter) The problem is the Americans have taken exclusive leadership of counterterrorism. When they delegate to local governments, it brings people's participation, and they are the most effective in fighting terrorism.

SHERLOCK: It's true, too, that these tribal networks haven't been able to keep al-Qaida out of Yemen, but the tribesmen say if the U.S. were to share more intelligence with them, there is more they could do. The Pentagon actually agrees. Colonel Thomas says the U.S. wants to work more closely with tribal allies on the ground.

For the victims of the raid, though, that is cold comfort. One of the wounded that night, a 22-year-old college student, Murad al-Adhal, is desperate for treatment. The bones in his lower right leg were smashed. Now they're held together by metal pins. To move is painful, but he made the trip to tell his story.

MURAD AL-ADHAL: (Through interpreter) Doctors here want to amputate because they say my leg no longer has any use. I would need a nerve and bone transplant.

SHERLOCK: To save his leg, he'd need to get treatment abroad, he says. But he can't afford that. Barely able to move, he's had to quit his studies and put his future on hold. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Marib.