Middle East

Why drone attacks in Yemen are like 'trying to hit a ghost'

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Media captionIs the use of US drones creating as many enemies as they are killing?

US drone strikes have been effective in killing senior al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen but innocent civilians have also died, raising tensions in the impoverished and fragile country.

The streets of the coastal town of Zinjibar in southern Yemen are reduced to rubble. Buildings are bombed out.

This town was on the front line of a battle between the Yemeni army and al-Qaeda in June 2012.

Government forces prevailed and one of al-Qaeda's most dangerous offshoots - al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) - slunk into the shadows.

But it remains dangerous. Al-Qaeda cells still operate here and there is also the risk of bandits who rob and kidnap.

'They think we're rats'

In a safe house with guards stationed outside, Mohammed Ahmad Bagash, a mechanic from the nearby town of Jaar, tells me his story.

During the fighting, al Qaeda fighters stored ammunition in the local hospital against the wishes of the doctors.

After the hospital was hit by a missile strike, Mohammed and his two children ran to a school and hid in the basement.

But then the school was hit in a suspected drone strike.

"It was as if everyone was burning. It was all dark," said Mr Bagash.

"When the smoke cleared, I saw my son's leg was bleeding, and my daughter was hit on the back of the head," he said.

He carried both children out. His son survived but his eight-year-old daughter bled to death on the way to the hospital.

"As she bled, she went yellow. She actually started to shrink in my arms," he said.

Several other children were injured in the attack.

Image caption A man walks past destroyed buildings in Zinjibar in southern Yemen

Mr Bagash has a question for the person who ordered the drone strike: "What did my daughter ever do to them? She was only eight years old."

And then a bleak observation.

"They think we're rats. We're not. We're human beings."

Fighting a 'ghost'

There is little public support for al-Qaeda on the streets of Zinjibar, but plenty of anger over the strategy used to fight them.

"Show the world. Show the world what the government has done," said one man.

"They bomb here but they're trying to hit a ghost."

And then another man joins the conversation. I ask him who he blames for the destruction of his town.

"Al-Qaeda are responsible for this and the nations that fund them," he said.

"But also the drones, they are killing our people, killing our children and destroying our homes. The drones don't differentiate between people. They kill people."

Locals like Mr Bagash are caught in the middle of a battle for the heart and soul of Yemen.

The Yemeni government, with US support, wants to eradicate al-Qaeda but since the militants live among the people, innocent civilians are also at risk.

Facts and figures are hard to come by as the US does not comment publicly on its drone policy, but according to the New America Foundation, a US think tank, the number of US drone strikes tripled in Yemen between 2011 and 2012.

In 2012, the US carried out more drone strikes in Yemen than anywhere else.

It is a remote automated war for the United States where the strikes have been successful in taking out al-Qaeda's leadership.

But for Yemenis, it is terror from the air.

Questions of legitimacy

And a young Yemeni democracy campaigner has a worrying message for Washington.

"The US thinks it understands Yemen but the drones have been one of the most effective tools for AQAP to succeed in Yemen," said Farea al-Muslimi.

Image caption Mohammed Ahmed Bagash says his eight-year-old daughter was killed in a drone strike

"A big part of al-Qaeda power at the moment is convincing Yemenis that they are in a war with America, (that) America is attacking the sovereignty of Yemen and this government is non-legitimate."

Mr al-Muslimi testified in front of a US Senate committee in a personal capacity after his own village was struck by a drone.

He thinks the US is wrong to stay silent when civilians are being killed in targeted strikes.

"You're killing civilians for no reason," said Mr al-Muslimi. "And you're not even going to say sorry after that or admit it, or issue an apology, or pay compensation?"

One man waiting for an apology is Ahmed al-Sabooly from Radda in southern Yemen.

After saying goodbye to his father, mother and sister as they left to visit the local health clinic last September, he headed out to work in the fields.

At 3pm, he heard a buzzing noise in the sky and says he saw a drone.

"There was a big blast. There was another big blast and I saw dust rising in the air."

Image caption Ahmed al-Sabooly describes the drone strike that killed three members of his family in Radda

Seeking justice

He jumped on his motorbike to go see what had happened. When he got there, he found that two missiles had hit a truck.

"The car was upside down and on fire. I looked in the car and I saw my mum, dad and sister," he said.

"They were burned so badly I could see their bones. My sister was still in my mother's arms."

The target was probably a local al-Qaeda leader who had been seen earlier travelling on the same stretch of road.

Thirteen civilians were killed.

Image caption Farea al-Muslimi testifies in front of a US Senate committee about a drone strike on his village

"My sister was so excited about going out that morning so she wore a brand new dress," said Mr al-Sabooly.

"I never thought it would be the last time I saw her."

He blames the US government for the drone strikes.

"They're the ones who have these weapons. They're the ones who have drones hovering over our village."

And Mr al-Sabooly wants justice.

"I want a trial and I want them prosecuted for the crimes they've committed," he said.

US officials conceded that Radda was a US strike in an off-the-record quote given to the Washington Post.

But there was no apology and in its absence, the Yemeni government paid $75,000 in blood money to the families.

'No alternative'

Yemen's government says all means are necessary to root out al-Qaeda, even if the US drone strikes are rallying support for the militant group.

"I've heard this argument, there might be some truth to it," said Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi.

"But if your targets are al-Qaeda leaders and if they are endangering the security of your country, there's no alternative."

And it seems there is no alternative for Mr Bagash or Mr al-Sabooly.

They must go about their daily lives in southern Yemen as the US tries to target the al-Qaeda militants in their midst.

"We have been living in constant fear, fear from the drone strikes, and fear from the air strikes," said Mr Bagash.

"You never know when your house will be hit."