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Yemen admits Al Qaeda raid was mistake

A senior Yemeni defense official admitted on Wednesday that a December 17 air strike against al Qaeda in southern Yemen killed scores of civilians and not 30 al Qaeda operatives as the government previously insisted.

The strike has been touted by both US and Yemeni officials as evidence of Yemen’s newly found commitment to battling an increasingly active Yemeni al Qaeda affiliate.

Within hours of the bombing, U.S. President Barack Obama called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, saying the operation “confirms Yemen’s resolve in confronting the danger of terrorism represented by al Qaeda for Yemen and the world,” Yemen’s state media reported.

Witness testimony and photographic evidence disputing the Yemeni government’s claims surfaced within a day of the air strike. A parliamentary fact finding committee documented that 42 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed. Seventy were hospitalized with injuries.

After months of delays, Deputy Prime Minister for Defense and Security Rashad al-Alimi appeared for Parliament’s debate on the air strike. “We work, and anyone who works makes mistakes,” he said.

“We apologize to those innocent citizens killed in the operation against al-Qaeda organization in Abyan,” al-Alimi said. He also said the government would pay compensation.

State Jihaddist or Al Qaeda?

Only two al-Qaeda members were killed in the raid including Mohammed Saleh al-Kazemi, a Saudi living in Yemen since his return from fighting in Afghanistan. Al Kazemi was imprisoned in Yemen for two years before his release in 2005 without a trial. He was on a most wanted list of 154 al Qaeda-linked militants, a Yemeni official told the New York Times. Al Kazemi helped plan a July 2007 suicide attack that killed seven Spanish tourists and two Yemeni guides in Marib, he said. The al Qaeda deputy also provided safe haven to foreign al Qaeda militants operating in Yemen, the official stated.

However a Member of Parliament for the opposition Islah party said the al Kazemi had close ties to Yemeni security forces. In a February interview with al Sahwa, Abdul Karim Shiban said that the two alleged al Qaeda operatives traveled back and forth from Shabwa to Abyan openly since their release from prison. The men were digging a well at the time of the raid and could have been easily captured, he said. Mr. Shiban also said the men used to chew khat with security officials and received an allowance from the state.

The enmeshment of al Qaeda and Yemen’s security forces complicates counter-terror operations. Yemen’s Political Security Organization was not informed of the air raid until it was over, the Washington Post reported.

At a Parliamentary session in March 2009, MPs from both the ruling party and opposition said that the Yemeni government’s aid to terrorists was politically motivated, the Yemen Post reported. MP Sakhr Al-Wajih said the government was involved in many terrorist acts which took place in the past years. The session followed an attempted suicide attack on South Korean investigators, who had arrived in Yemen to aid authorities in the investigation of the murder of four South Korean tourists.

The US is increasing military funding to Yemen from the $67 million spent in 2009 to $150 million for fiscal year 2010. The funds are to be used to repair and service 10 Mi-17 helicopters, and to provide four Huey IIs and train Yemeni crews to operate and maintain them.

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