Yemen minister urges ground ops, not drones, against militants

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A cabinet minister criticized on Tuesday the use of pilotless U.S. drones against suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen, a tactic that has outraged communities in targeted areas, and urged a move to ground operations to avoid hurting civilians.

Yemen, an Arabian Peninsula country plagued by lawlessness that has been exploited by al Qaeda to launch attacks on Arab and Western targets, has witnessed a rising tempo of U.S. missile strikes in recent weeks.

“To have an innocent person fall, this is a major breach,” Yemeni Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, voicing rare public opposition to the tactic by a member of the cabinet.

The comments by Mashhour, formerly a top activist in the mass unrest that ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh a year ago, reflect growing public unease about the strikes and amounted to rare criticism from within the government. Saleh’s successor, President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has praised drone operations.

But dozens of armed tribesmen took to the streets in southern Yemen on Jan. 4 to protest against drone strikes which they said had killed innocent civilians.

The United States never comments on action by its drones, which it has used to hunt down militants in Yemen for years. The Yemeni government allows such air strikes but usually does not comment on the U.S. role in specific incidents.

Asked for her position on the use of drones, Mashhour did not mention the United States or assert that any specific strike had killed civilians.

But she said: “I am in favor of changing the anti-terrorism strategy, I think there are more effective strategies.”

"We’re committed to fighting terrorism but we’re calling for changing the means and strategies,” she said on the sidelines of a U.N. Yemen humanitarian appeal meeting in Dubai. “These means and strategies can be applied on the ground without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations.”

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Washington has increased counter-terrorism help to Yemen, where al Qaeda’s regional wing grew in power and influence during the popular uprising against Saleh.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is considered by Western governments to be one of the most active and dangerous wings of the global network founded by Osama bin Laden and has attempted a number of attacks on U.S. interests.

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables said that Saleh had agreed in 2009 to a covert U.S. war on Islamist militants and accepted that Yemen take responsibility for U.S. attacks when necessary.

But Hadi spoke openly in favour of the drone strikes during a trip to the United States in September. Hadi, who has been praised by the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa as being more effective against al Qaeda than Saleh, was quoted as saying that he personally approved every attack.

Mashhour also said she wanted to see a fair trial for anyone suspected of involvement “in terrorist activities.”

“This is our idea, to do this through the judiciary. But the United States said that it’s in an open war with them and they declared the U.S. as an enemy. The (U.S.) declared (militants) as enemies who could be targeted wherever they are found.”

“All we are calling for is justice and reliance on international regulations with regard to human rights and to be true to our commitment to our citizens in that they all deserve a fair trial,” Mashhour added.

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