Obama apologises for drone strike killing of two aid workers

Human rights group Reprieve says drone strikes kill vastly more people than targets


US president Barack Obama expressed his “deepest apologies” on behalf of his government over the killing of two aid workers, an American and an Italian, in a drone strike on an al-Qaeda compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in January.

The White House confirmed the killing of Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian hostage since 2012, in a US counterterrorism operation, after the deaths were first reported by the Wall Street Journal, apparently with the assistance of the Obama administration on the release of the information.

Both men were aid workers in Pakistan when they were abducted by the militant group.

Speaking shortly after the White House confirmation yesterday, Mr Obama said in a statement to reporters that intelligence had shown a US counterterrorism operation targeting an al-Qaeda compound accidentally killed the two aid workers in the region.

“As president and as commander-in-chief I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni,” he said. “I profoundly regret what happened.”

The White House statement and the president’s remarks were laden with emotional language expressing regret over the killings. “It is with tremendous sorrow,” it started, announcing the killing of the two aid workers.

Two other Americans, Ahmed Farouq and Adam Gadahn, both al-Qaeda members, were also killed in January, the White House said. Mr Gadahn was killed “likely in a separate US government counterterrorism operation”, the Obama administration said.

Mr Weinstein (73), from Rockville in Maryland, near Washington DC, worked as an economic development adviser under contract for the US Agency for International Development when he was kidnapped from Lahore, in Pakistan, in 2011, shortly before he was due to return to the US.

Mr Lo Porto, a humanitarian aid worker kidnapped in January 2012, worked in the Central African Republic and Haiti before travelling to Pakistan, where he was abducted with a German colleague. Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi expressed his “deep sorry” over the death of Mr Lo Porto.

Mr Obama said after hundreds of hours of surveillance, the US believed the compound in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region was home to al-Qaeda leaders and that no civilians were present. He did not specifically mention a drone strike. “What we did not know, tragically, was al-Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound,” he said. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.”

The president said he directed that the existence of the operation be declassified and disclosed publicly once the US had determined the cause of the deaths of the two aid workers.

Drone strikes by unmanned aircraft operated remotely have been frequently used by US military to strike at al-Qaeda and other militant groups, mostly in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen.

The military strikes, deeply resented by the Pakistani people, have been widely criticised by human rights groups internationally and by civil libertarians in the US because of the number of innocent civilians who have been killed in the unmanned attacks.

Human rights group Reprieve questioned the accuracy of “targeted” US drone strikes, saying they kill vastly more people than targets.

In an analysis of public data, the group said in November that attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people.

The White House refused to say whether a drone strike was specifically responsible for the killing of the two hostages in January, citing confidentiality around military operations.

Mr Obama said his administration’s “initial assessment” of the January operation was that it was “fully consistent with the guidelines under which we conduct counterterrorism operations in the region”.

He said he spoke to Mr Weinstein’s widow Elaine and Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi about the US military strike. He ordered a review of the operations to find out what happened and to prevent a similar mistake occurring. “One of the things that sets Americans apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes,” he said.