US military admits two civilian deaths in Somalia airstrikes

U.S. Africa Command (Africom) is acknowledging for the first time its airstrikes in Somalia have killed civilians.

In a Friday statement, Africom said two civilians were killed in an April 1, 2018, airstrike.

“Credibility, transparency and accountability are fundamental to military operations," Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, commander of Africom, said in a statement. "It is critically important that people understand we adhere to exacting standards and when we fall short, we acknowledge shortcomings and take appropriate action."

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Until Friday, Africom had insisted its airstrikes in Somalia have killed no civilians. The military conducted 28 airstrikes in Somalia so far this year, 47 in 2018 and 35 in 2017.

The military doubled down on its assertion of no civilian casualties as recently as last month after Amnesty International released a report alleging 14 civilians have been killed over the last two years.

But on Friday, Africom said a commander-ordered review of airstrikes since 2017 discovered the two previously unreported deaths.

The strike at issue was not one of the ones Amnesty International flagged, the statement said.

The April 2018 airstrike happened near El Burr, Somalia, and also killed four militants from the al Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab, according to the statement.

Africom said an internal review the same month of the strike found credible evidence that two civilians were killed. But according to Friday’s statement, that information was never properly reported to Africom headquarters, leading to commanders repeatedly erroneously telling lawmakers and the media that there have been zero civilian casualties in U.S. military operations in Africa.

Africom said it believes the civilian deaths were an “isolated occurrence,” but that the reporting issue is being addressed.

"Airstrike assessments are a critical and continuous component of operations," Maj. Gen. Gregg Olson, Africom director of operations, said in a statement. "Trust and credibility are central to our operations. If an innocent loss of life occurs, we are committed to being transparent and learning from this regrettable incident to prevent future occurrences."

In its own statement, Amnesty International called Friday’s acknowledgement an “important step forward.”

“But this is only a first step,” Daphne Eviatar, director of security with human rights at Amnesty International USA, continued. “We still need new investigation procedures and all cases of civilian casualties we have documented re-investigated. The family and community members of victims of these and other strikes who have had neither communication nor support from Africom will find little solace in this initial response.”