First civilian death in a drone strike this year reported in Yemen

The third strike of the year brings the first civilian casualty (Staff Sgt NB/US Air Force)

A civilian was reported killed in a suspected US drone strike in Yemen yesterday – the first civilian casualty in the secret drone war reported in 2014.

Drones reportedly killed a farmer yesterday, witnesses said, though he has yet to be identified.

Unnamed officials told local media the attack killed an al Qaeda member. However witnesses and other Yemeni officials confirmed a civilian was also killed.

The strike apparently targeted a vehicle carrying three alleged al Qaeda members. It appears drones fired three missiles at the vehicle, injuring as many as two of the al Qaeda men, according to witnesses and Yemeni officials.

This is the third strike so far this year in Yemen and the second to hit the sparsely populated province of Hadramout in the country’s south east.

The farmer, who was not in the vehicle, was hit by shrapnel. Some reports said he was blown into pieces by the force of the blast.

In May last year President Obama set out rules governing drone strikes. The president said: ‘Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.’

In the same speech the president also said the new rules would constrain the drone programme. But Bureau analysis of the six months after the speech found the overall death toll from drone strikes in this period increased compared with the six months before. This is despite the number of strikes decreasing over the same period.

Related article: New analysis questions constraint on US drone strikes

The latest reported civilian casualty in Yemen comes days after US officials said the administration will be investigating a December 12 2013 strike on a wedding party in Yemen that killed 6-15 civilians. It also emerged that it was a military strike, carried out by the shadowy US special forces group: the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

That strike contributed to the highest ever civilian casualty rate – the number of civilians reported killed on average in each confirmed drone strike – last year in Yemen, where JSOC and the CIA fly lethal drone strikes.

Related article: A changing drone campaign: US covert actions in 2013

Conversely, 2013 saw no confirmed civilian casualties reported in Pakistan, where the CIA is running the strikes. The civilian casualty rate has been falling in Pakistan since a peak in 2009. Five years ago the CIA was killing on average almost two civilians per strike.

Reported improvements in drone technology since the early years of the drone programme, increased friction between Pakistan and the US over the strikes, and greater scrutiny of Washington’s use of drones – both at home and abroad – could be behind this drastic drop in civilian casualties.

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