The Pentagon has acknowledged for the first time that at least two civilians were killed and three were injured in US airstrikes early last year in Somalia, where rights groups have accused the US military of shrouding its operations in secrecy.
The announcement, by the US Africa Command (AFRICOM), was a rare acknowledgement from the military of civilian casualties in its ongoing campaign in Somalia.
“Regrettably two civilians were killed and three others injured in a February 2019 airstrike. We are deeply sorry this occurred,” said AFRICOM’s commander, US Army General Stephen Townsend, in a recent quarterly assessment report by the military on allegations of civilian casualties.
The deadly airstrike was reportedly carried out in the vicinity of Kunyo Barrow in Lower Shabelle region.
It was the second known incident in which AFRICOM has acknowledged killing civilians in Somalia. The first was in April 2018 in El Buur area of central Somalia, in which AFRICOM reported it had unintentionally killed two civilians.
The United States has been conducting airstrikes in Somalia for years.
A decision by the administration of President Donald Trump to relax rules for preventing civilian casualties during counterterrorism operations had led to more civilian casualties.
Trump authorized the military in March 2017 to conduct “precision strikes.”
AFRICOM disclosed 63 strikes last year, up from the previous record of 47 in 2018.
Last year, Amnesty International released a report putting the civilian death toll in the airstrikes at 14 since 2017 in Somalia alone.
For years, AFRICOM had maintained that no civilians had been killed in the US airstrikes in Somalia, disputing charges from human rights activists and organizations.
The US military campaign in Somalia, which includes missiles fired by manned aircraft as well as drones, expanded after Trump became president and declared southern Somalia an “area of active hostilities.”
AFRICOM had for a long time insisted that it was only taking out “terrorists” mostly recruited by the al-Shabaab outfit in its alleged precision strikes in Somalia. But civilians have constituted a considerable portion of the targets.
Somalia has faced instability since 1991, when the military government was overthrown.
In 2011, al-Shabaab was pushed out of Mogadishu with the help of the African Union forces. The militant group still wields power in rural areas. It has fought successive governments in the country as well as those in Kenya and Uganda.