WASHINGTON (AP) - A U.S. military drone strike in Yemen last December may have killed up to a dozen civilians on their way to a wedding and injured others, including the bride, a human rights group says. U.S. officials say only members of al-Qaida were killed, but they have refused to make public the details of two U.S. investigations into the incident.
Human Rights Watch released a report on the drone strike Thursday, citing interviews with eight witnesses and relatives of the dead as well as Yemeni officials. The report said four Hellfire missiles were fired at a wedding procession of 11 vehicles on Dec. 12, 2013, in Radda in southern Yemen, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others, six of them seriously.
The report said the procession "may have included members" of Yemen's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, "although it is not clear who they were or what was their fate." Family members and survivors say all those hit were civilians; Yemeni officials told Human Rights Watch that most were militants.
"We asked both the Yemeni and the U.S. authorities to tell us which of the dead and wounded were members of militant groups and which if any were civilians," report author Letta Tayler, a senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press. "They did not reply to this question."
She added: "While we do not rule out the possibility that AQAP fighters were killed and wounded in this strike, we also do not rule out the possibility that all of those killed and wounded were civilians."
The New York-based group called on the U.S. government to investigate and make the findings public.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said he would not comment on specific operational details. He noted that the Yemeni government has stated that the targets were "dangerous senior al-Qaida militants."
U.S. and Yemeni officials said the target of the attack, Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a midlevel al-Qaida leader, was wounded and had escaped.
Al-Badani is on Yemen's most wanted list and is accused of masterminding a plan for a major attack last summer. When an intercepted message revealed the plot, the U.S. temporarily closed 19 of its diplomatic posts across Africa and the Mideast. Some European missions were closed as well.
Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani - twice - and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit.
The officials said the Pentagon can't release details because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.