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  • US Military Denies Rights Group Allegations of Civilian Casualties in Somalia
    A human rights group says 14 civilians were killed during five U.S. airstrikes in Somalia in the last two years, an allegation the U.S. military strongly denies. Amnesty International issued a civilian casualty report Tuesday, which included accounts from 65 eyewitness interviews, several photos, satellite imagery and social media posts as evidence of airstrikes in Somalia's Lower Shabelle region from October 2017 to December 2018. The rights group concludes that its report "provides credible evidence that U.S. airstrikes were responsible for four of these incidents and that the fifth was most plausibly caused by a U.S. airstrike." U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which conducts U.S. military strikes in Somalia in coordination with the Somali government, asserted that no civilians have been killed in its strikes and said Amnesty's report "does not accurately reflect AFRICOM's record in mitigating civilian casualties." "AFRICOM goes to extraordinary lengths to reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, exercising restraint as a matter of policy," it said. The rights group presented 13 allegations to the command in October 2018 and February 2019, five of which were detailed in its report. Amnesty's Conor Fortune told VOA Tuesday that the other allegations lacked "sufficient corroborating evidence" or were disregarded by the rights group based on "untrustworthy" sources. According to defense officials, the U.S. military has assessed 18 allegations of civilian casualties in Somalia since 2017, allegations that were received from its own internal examination of strikes or from outside allegations. Post-strike analysis "using intelligence methods not available to nonmilitary organizations" found that none of those airstrikes resulted in any civilian casualty or injury, a defense official said. The official added that AFRICOM did not even conduct a strike at the time and place of one of the five allegations presented in the report. "I'm confident that our procedures would permit us to do thorough evaluations of any allegations and come up with an answer that is accurate and can be transparently conveyed," Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, AFRICOM's Director of Operations, said Tuesday. U.S. defense officials said pro-al-Shabab media outlets "regularly use the opportunity to assert civilian casualties in the aftermath" of strikes, often pushing staged photographs and stock photographs as evidence. In addition to the U.S. military, Kenyans and Ethiopians have also struck militant targets in Somalia in support of the international effort to defeat the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab fighters. DETAILS OF THE ALLEGATIONS Oct. 16, 2017, Farah Waeys Settlement Status: Military confirms strike, denies civilian casualties Amnesty reports a U.S. armed drone targeted a suspected al-Shabab vehicle traveling between the towns of Awdheegle and Barire with two strikes. The first missed the vehicle, killing two civilians, and injuring five others, including children. The second strike destroyed the vehicle and killed the suspected a-Shabab fighters inside. Residents told Amnesty that al-Shabab came to the village and collected the bodies of those in the vehicle. However, relatives and neighbors of the victims killed outside the vehicle told Amnesty they were not associated with al-Shabab "in any way" and were "innocent." In a response from AFRICOM obtained by VOA, the U.S. military said it conducted an assessment after posts on social media alleged civilian casualties. It concluded the strike was "not likely" to have killed or injured civilians. Dec. 6, 2017, Illimey Status: Military denies strike was conducted by the U.S. Amnesty said a truck carrying suspected al-Shabab militants exploded, killing five civilians, including two children, in secondary explosions and fires. All suspects in the vehicle were also killed. The rights group believes the explosion was most plausibly caused by a U.S. airstrike, but the U.S. military said a strike was not carried out, neither on that day nor in that location. The military reported it did strike a vehicle laden with explosives a week later in an area 56 kilometers away, but asserted no secondary explosions occurred. Nov. 12, 2017, Dar es Salaam Status: Military confirms strike, denies civilian casualties Amnesty said three civilian farmers were killed by a U.S. airstrike outside the village of Dar es Salaam as they camped on the edge of a road after irrigating their farm late into the night. Witnesses told Amnesty that al-Shabab moved the bodies and staged them for photographs posted to social media. Once the bodies were returned by the terror group, interviewees said al-Shabab refused to let the families wash the bodies, "declaring them martyrs who must be left in their clothes," according to the report. AFRICOM said it determined in a civilian casualty allegation assessment at the time that the three men were al-Shabab members. Aug. 2, 2018, Outside Gobanle Village Status: Military confirms strike, denies civilian casualties Amnesty reported that a U.S. drone strike killed three civilians, including two well diggers and an employee from Hormuud Telecommunications Company, who were riding in a vehicle with a suspected al-Shabab member. AFRICOM, in a response to Amnesty, said they conducted a civilian casualty assessment based on allegations from pro-al-Shabab media at the time of the strike but determined the individuals were members of al-Shabab. Dec. 9, 2018, Baladul-Rahma Status: Military confirms strike, denies civilian casualties Amnesty said U.S. forces conducted an airstrike near the village of Baladul-Rahma, killing a civilian farmer and injuring another as they irrigated their farm. The rights group said it believed the casualties were either incidental or a result of misidentification. A defense official denied any civilians were killed or injured in the Dec. 9 strike and described this allegation as one of the "very cut and dry" circumstances where U.S. partner forces were on the ground with Somali partners being actively shot at by al-Shabab militants. AFRICOM confirmed a strike was conducted at that time against al-Shabab fighters who were "attacking partner forces."
  • Iran's Woes Briefly Go Up in Smoke During Fire Festival
    Iran's many woes briefly went up in smoke on Tuesday as Iranians observed a nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition known as the Festival of Fire.   The celebration is held on the last Tuesday night before Nowruz, or the Iranian New Year, which will be celebrated Thursday. The annual ritual dates back to at least 1700 B.C. and is linked to the Zoroastrian religion.   To celebrate, people light bonfires, set off fireworks and send wish lanterns floating off into the night sky. Others jump over and around fires, chanting "My yellow is yours, your red is mine," invoking the replacement of ills with warmth and energy. The fire festival also features an Iranian version of trick-or-treating, with people going door to door and being given a holiday mix of nuts and berries, as well as buckets of water.   Arezou Abarghouei held hands with her daughter and husband as they leaped over a small fire in Tehran.   "Iranians love to celebrate, and they need it, especially now, when all of us are facing economic problems," she said. "This is a way to forget these difficulties just for one night.''   This year Nowruz comes at a time of growing economic hardship following U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal and restore crippling sanctions. Iran's currency has plummeted in recent months, sending prices skyrocketing and wiping out many people's life savings. The fire festival is one of two holidays with ancient roots that are still observed each year in the Islamic Republic, the other being a picnic day in early April.   The holiday offers a rare opportunity for Iranians to dance and celebrate in public, something authorities usually frown on. Police warned people to stay away from major streets and public squares, but largely ignored celebrations held inside neighborhoods. Hard-liners discourage such celebrations, viewing them as pagan holdovers. The Western-allied monarchy that was toppled by the 1979 Islamic revolution had emphasized the country's pre-Islamic past, presenting itself as heir to a Persian civilization stretching back to antiquity.   The semi-official Fars news agency quoted head of the country's emergency committee as saying 155 people were injured during the celebrations, mainly from fireworks. It said 22 people lost limbs and 48 suffered eye injuries.
  • Radovan Karadzic Faces Final Verdict in War Crimes Case
    United Nations appeals judges on Wednesday hand down a final verdict in the case of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a key figure in the Balkan wars who is serving a 40-year prison sentence for genocide. The ruling will likely bring to a close one of the highest profile trials stemming from the series of wars in the 1990s that saw the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia and death of at least 100,000 Bosnians. Karadzic, 73, was convicted in 2016 for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces. He was also found guilty of leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing that drove Croats and Muslims out of Serb-claimed areas of Bosnia. On appeal, prosecutors are seeking a life sentence and a second genocide conviction for his alleged role in that policy of targeting non-Serbs across several Bosnian towns in the early years of the war. Karadzic meanwhile is appealing against his conviction and wants a retrial. The ruling, which is final and cannot be challenged on appeal, will have huge resonance in the former Yugoslavia, especially in Bosnia, where ethnic communities remain divided and Karadzic is still seen as a hero by many Bosnian Serbs. The judgment will be read out at 14:00 local time (13:00 GMT) in The Hague at a U.N. court handling cases left over when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closed its doors in 2017. A delegation of the association of Mothers of Srebrenica will be in the Netherlands for the judgment. In hiding for nearly a decade, Karadzic was arrested and handed over to the court in July 2008.