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US cluster bombs in Yemen: The right weapon in Al Qaeda fight?

A June 7 report from Amnesty International offers photographs of US-made cluster bombs that it says were used in a December attack against suspected Al Qaeda members.

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The Yemeni government denied the photographs’ validity. Yemeni Minister of Foreign Affairs Abu Bakr al-Qirbi said today that the US cooperation is limited to sharing intelligence, according to Yemen’s official news agency.

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Too much US pressure on Yemen?

However, political analysts in and outside Yemen repeatedly asserted last fall that the US was providing military aid to help the Yemeni government battle Al Qaeda. Washington had sent a number of high-level political figures to the Yemen capital Sanaa, signaling an increased interest in the country. Gen. David Petraeus announced on Jan. 1 that the US would double its counterterrorism aid to Yemen, which totaled $67 million in 2009; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has since approved $150 million for 2010, underscoring US concerns that Al Qaeda is growing in Yemen.

While the US government has been hesitant to admit direct military involvement in Yemen, the Amnesty report is likely to bolster Yemenis' suspicions that the US is interfering with their country's affairs, says Najeeb Ghalleb, a researcher at Sanaa University in Yemen's capital.

“Many consider the strike that happened in Abyan to have been American, and that the Yemeni government faces much pressure, and even threats, to accept this American pressure,” says Mr. Ghalleb. “The most important issue is that there is a general view of semi-hostility toward the United States, especially among religious groups and tribes, and even some national forces. Any direct interference by the US will cause some of these powers to have sympathy with Al Qaeda.”

Anti-cluster-bomb conference opens today in Chile

Over the past six months, the Yemeni media has cited numerous instances when American drones were spotted flying over areas of Yemen known as Al Qaeda hotspots.

But the use of cluster munitions is more controversial because when the bombs explode, they blast out hundreds of sharp steel splinters that can reach up to 150 meters away, and the imprecision of the weapon often results in casualties of women and children in addition to the intended targets. Additionally, the bomblets frequently fail to detonate on impact and can remain a threat decades after they were originally used.

The release of the Amnesty report coincides with the commencement of a major three-day global anti-cluster bomb conference being held in Chile. A total of 106 countries have signed a United Nations-backed convention created in 2008 to ban the use of cluster munitions.

Both the United States and Yemen have not signed the treaty.