BOSASO, Somalia / WASHINGTON / PENTAGON — A U.S. drone strike intended to hit an Islamic State (IS) hideout in Somalia's northeastern region of Puntland mistakenly killed two frankincense collectors, according to local elders and a survivor who spoke Saturday with VOA.
The Friday afternoon attack also injured another person after the drone strike hit the men, who were in the process of collecting frankincense near the remote Ameyra village in the Golis Mountain region of Somalia's Northeastern Bari province, multiple local elders told VOA.
Sa'id Abshir Mohamud, a local elder at Timishe village near the target of the strikes, told VOA Somalia about the reported civilian casualties.
"Men sent to the location of the strike brought back the dead bodies of two locally known villagers who went there to collect frankincense," the elder said.
He identified the victims as Salad Mohamud Barre and Ayanle Ibrahim Mohamud.
"One of the bodies was mutilated," the elder said.
US AFRICOM denial
U.S. Africa Command said it conducted the airstrike and targeted IS terrorists in region. Despite the local elders' claims, a statement from U.S. AFRICOM said Friday it killed three terrorists and no civilian were harmed.
"At this time, it is assessed the airstrike killed three (3) terrorists. Currently, we assess no civilians were injured or killed as a result of this airstrike," the statement said.
To boost their ranks and mislead the locals, terrorists in Somalia routinely spread propaganda saying U.S. military drones target civilians. Additionally, the terrorist groups are known to use civilians as human shields.
The prevalence of the militants' anti-Western smear campaign makes it difficult to immediately prove the complicity or innocence of those targeted by such drone attacks in remote villages.
In an exclusive interview Friday with VOA, Africa Command Director of Public Affairs Col. Chris Karns also stressed the importance of the U.S. strikes in Somalia.
"Oftentimes people will see the airstrikes, which are important because they help the disrupt al-Shabab. They create organizational confusion, they essentially, the airstrikes prevent them [the terrorists] from maneuvering. So they set the conditions for development. They set the conditions for governance, and they're foundational to the progress that's being made," Karns said.
Mohamed Mohamud Barre, a man claiming to be a survivor of the strike, described to VOA what he said he witnessed.
"The three of us went there to collect frankincense days ago. A missile surprisingly targeted where we were, killing the two other men. I ran through a dark smoke and the debris of the mountain rocks and crawled under a nearby mountain cave, then another missile was targeted at my location but the cave and Allah saved me. In the cave, I found out that I had sustained shrapnel injuries and remained there until midnight Friday. I am bleeding and I feel kidney pain," Barre told VOA on the phone.
VOA could not fully verify Barre's claim but Isse Jama Mohamed, a revered local traditional elder, who later contacted VOA, confirmed the man's claim and called for the Somali federal government to investigate the incident so the victims' families could pursue their rights for compensation.
"One of the dead men left eight orphans and the other, five. I think they were mistakenly targeted. I call for the federal government and the government of Puntland Regional State to look into the incident," Mohamed said.
He said one of the dead men left Bosaso, the port and the commercial hub of Puntland, three days ago to collect frankincense to pay medical bills for his pregnant wife.
"He took his pregnant wife to Bosaso for medical care but he could not afford to pay the bills. He decided to go the mountains and collect frankincense to sell and then pay the surgery bills for his wife, who is carrying twin babies, one of them dead," the elder said.
The area where the latest U.S. strike occurred is a known hideout for IS militants in Somalia. It is a hot and dry rocky land, where locals historically have harvested gold and frankincense, which is used in traditional Sufi religious ceremonies.
One attack in the area in April killed the deputy leader of Somalia's IS group, Abdulhakim Dhuqub, who was responsible for the extremist group's daily operations, attack planning and resource procurement.
Another airstrike in May killed 13 of the group's fighters.
There have been incidents in which the U.S. military has been accidentally responsible for the deaths of civilians and subsequently admitted so after an investigation.
Earlier this year, a civilian casualty report issued by human rights group Amnesty International concluded there was credible evidence that five U.S. airstrikes were responsible for the death of 14 civilians killed between 2017 and 2018.
The U.S. military initially denied Amnesty International's reporting but later admitted that a woman and child were killed in one incident in April 2018, near the town of Elbur, in the central Somali region of Galgudud.
Officials said they missed the incident because it was not reported to them.
The acknowledgement marked the first time the U.S. admitted to causing civilian casualties during its air campaign in Somalia, which began in 2011 under the direction of President Barack Obama.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, the number of strikes in the region has risen sharply.
U.S. AFRICOM has said repeatedly the precision airstrikes it carries out in Somalia are to support Somali government security forces and create safe space for increased governance in the nation.
"In support of the federal government of Somalia, U.S. forces will use all effective and appropriate methods to assist in the protection of the Somali people, including partnered military counterterrorism operations with the Federal Government of Somalia, AMISOM [the African Union Mission in Somalia], and Somali National Army forces," the latest U.S. AFRICOM statement said.
Fadumo Yasiin Jama contributed to this story from Bosaso, Somalia; VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb also contributed.