Reports of Civilian Killed in US Airstrike Are al-Shabaab Propaganda, DoD Says

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In this Feb. 13, 2012 file photo, an armed member of the militant group al-Shabab attends a rally in support of the merger of the Somali militant group al-Shabab with al-Qaida, on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. U.S. military forces targeted the Islamic extremist al-Shabab network in an operation, Sept. 1, 2014 in Somalia, the Pentagon said. (AP Photo/File)
In this Feb. 13, 2012 file photo, an armed member of the militant group al-Shabab attends a rally in support of the merger of the Somali militant group al-Shabab with al-Qaida, on the outskirts of Mogadishu, Somalia. U.S. military forces targeted the Islamic extremist al-Shabab network in an operation, Sept. 1, 2014 in Somalia, the Pentagon said. (AP Photo/File)

Officials with U.S. Africa Command are disputing news reports that a civilian was killed during a "precision airstrike" near Jamaame, Somalia, this month, saying the reports are based on propaganda from a terrorist group.

The strike took place April 10 and killed one terrorist, according to a release from AFRICOM: "an al-Shabaab member complicit in the murder of at least six innocent Somalis."

Al-Shabaab is an al-Qaida-linked militant group based in East Africa. Its aims include the overthrow of the Somali government.

Two news outlets falsely reported civilian casualties in the recent strike, officials said in the release. One, they said, was the al-Shabaab-linked network SomaliMemo.

The April 10 airstrike was conducted in coordination with the Somali government and took place after the al-Shabaab target had terrorized a nearby village, laying out the murdered corpses of soldiers from the Somali National Army, AFRICOM officials said. The militant was killed, they said, after departing the village with other fighters and entering "a remote and secluded area."

Related: Senior al-Shabaab Leader Killed By US Strike in Somalia, Pentagon Says

"This was no innocent civilian. This was a purposeful and heinous act. It was a war crime by an al-Shabaab terrorist who desecrated bodies to scare and intimidate innocent Somalis into submission," Army Maj. Gen. William Gayler, U.S. Africa Command director of operations, said in a statement. "This terrorist posed with al-Shabaab flags prominently displayed in the background as Somalis of all ages were exposed to his gruesome public display."

The April 10 airstrike, which officials announced publicly the same day, came a day after another coordinated strike April 9 near Kobon, Somalia. Ten terrorists were killed in that strike, according to the announcements. At the time, AFRICOM said no civilians were killed or injured in the strikes.

When it comes to civilian casualties in Africa, however, many have accused the Defense Department of failing in accountability measures and covering up evidence.

On April 1, Amnesty International accused the DoD of failing to disclose that February airstrikes in Somalia had killed two civilians and injured another three.

AFRICOM has maintained in statements that only terrorists were killed in the strikes.

"Our in-depth post-strike analysis relies on intelligence methods that are not available to non-military organizations, including Amnesty International," officials said in a statement released to Reuters at the time. "The command's civilian casualty allegation assessment process is precise, comprehensive, and led by a team of experts."

To date, AFRICOM has admitted to just one incident with civilian casualties: an April 1, 2018, strike that killed two, described by Amnesty as a woman and young child.

In the wake of a Jan. 5 al-Shabaab attack on U.S. troops at Manda Bay Airfield, Kenya, on the Somali border, the U.S. has ramped up strikes on the group. Three Americans were killed in that attack.

According to assessments from Airwars cited by Amnesty International, U.S. forces have conducted 32 airstrikes on targets in Somalia as of April 1, compared to 63 for all of 2019.

AFRICOM has announced six airstrikes in Somalia so far this month. An April 2 strike successfully eliminated Yusuf Jiis, a key member of al-Shabaab leadership, officials said.

"Weakened by sustained military operations led by the [Somali National Army] and [African Union Mission in Somalia] forces, al-Shabaab is increasingly relying on lies and propaganda, including releasing gruesome pictures of unverified civilian casualties, in an effort to grab media attention, as well as deceive the Somali public," AFRICOM officials said Wednesday.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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