US says kills up to 116 civilians in strikes outside war zones

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Obama Answers Question on Drone Deaths

WASHINGTON, July 1 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's government accepted responsibility on Friday for inadvertently killing up to 116 civilians in strikes in countries where America is not at war, a major disclosure likely to inflame debate about targeted killings and use of drones.

Obama's goal for the release of the numbers, which are higher than any previously acknowledged by his government but vastly below private estimates, is to create greater transparency about what the U.S. military and CIA are doing to fight militants plotting against the United States.

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But the figures, which covered strikes from the day Obama took office in January 2009 through Dec. 31, 2015, were below even the most conservative estimates by non-governmental organizations that spent years tallying U.S. strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

"The numbers reported by the White House today simply don't add up and we're disappointed by that," said Federico Borello, executive director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

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A U.S. airman guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone as it taxis to the runway at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flies over Creech Air Force Base in Nevada during a training mission May 19, 2016. Picture taken May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
U.S. airmen control a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. Picture taken March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Josh Smith
Three 500-pound bombs wait to be loaded on U.S. Air Force drones at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. airman controls the sensors on a U.S. Air Force drone from a command trailer at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone sits armed with Hellfire missiles and a 500-pound bomb in a hanger at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Air Force ground crew secure weapons and other components of an MQ-9 Reaper drone after it returned from a mission, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo
A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone takes off from Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. To match Exclusive AFGHANISTAN-DRONES/ REUTERS/Josh Smith/File Photo
A man walks past a graffiti, denouncing strikes by U.S. drones in Yemen, painted on a wall in Sanaa November 13, 2014. Yemeni authorities have paid out tens of thousands of dollars to victims of drone strikes using U.S.-supplied funds, a source close to Yemen's presidency said, echoing accounts by legal sources and a family that lost two members in a 2012 raid. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST MILITARY POLITICS SOCIETY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Various U.S. military drones are seen at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington September 1, 2015. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
The Navmar Applied Sciences Corp. TigerShark is escorted off the runway after landing during "Black Dart", a live-fly, live fire demonstration of 55 unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range, Point Mugu, near Oxnard, California July 31, 2015. REUTERS/Patrick T. Fallon
Soldiers stand behind of a camera by Unmanned Aerial System 'Shadow' during an official presentation by the German and U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) at the U.S. military base in Vilseck-Grafenwoehr October 8, 2013. The drone has a wing-spread of 6.90 metre, an aircraft speed of about 177 km/h and it's mainly used in Afghanistan. Picture taken October 8. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle (GERMANYMILITARY - Tags: POLITICS) MILITARY)
People gather near the wreckage of a car destroyed by a U.S. drone air strike that targeted suspected al Qaeda militants in August 2012, in the al-Qatn district of the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadhramout February 5, 2013. U.S. drones have launched almost daily raids on suspected al Qaeda militants in Yemen during the past two weeks, and air strikes have aggravated discontent among Yemenis, who say the strikes pose a threat to civilians. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah (YEMEN - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SOCIETY)
An X-47B pilot-less drone combat aircraft is launched for the first time off an aircraft carrier, the USS George H. W. Bush, in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Virginia, May 14, 2013. The U.S. Navy made aviation history on Tuesday by catapulting an unmanned jet off an aircraft carrier for the first time, testing a long-range, stealthy, bat-winged plane that represents a jump forward in drone technology. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES - Tags: MILITARY SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
A U.S. Navy serviceman (L) prepares to launch an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) with Philippine Navy servicemen aboard a patrol boat during a joint annual military exercise called "Carat" at former U.S. military base Sangley Point in Cavite city, west of Manila June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (PHILIPPINES - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Paxton Force, of Fox Co, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines Regiment checks T-Hawk, a surveillance drone camera at the Landing Zone of Combat Outpost Musa Qal-Ah in Helmand province, southwestern Afghanistan November 5, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS CIVIL UNREST)
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Drone advocates, including those within the U.S. military, argue the strikes are an essential part of reducing the ability of militant groups to plot attacks against the United States. They say the government goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Critics of the targeted killing program question whether the strikes create more militants than they kill. They cite the spread of jihadist organizations and militant attacks throughout the world as evidence that targeted killings may be exacerbating the problem.

"We're still faced with the basic question: Is the number of bad guys who are taken out of commission by drone strikes greater or less than the number of people who are inspired to turn to violent acts," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA specialist on the Middle East and now a professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who says he represents a hundred families of civilians killed by drones, questioned the validity of the data even before their release by the Director of National Intelligence.

He said Washington needed to better explain its criteria for declaring someone a civilian, something that can be difficult to do from a camera on a drone.

"President Obama is worried about his legacy as a president who ordered extra-judicial killings of thousands which resulted in a high number of civilian deaths," Akbar told Reuters.

"As a constitutional lawyer himself, he knows what's wrong with that."

Senior Obama administration officials stressed that the United States goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and refrains from making strikes due to such concerns. One official said that in order for militants to be targeted, they must be a "continuing and imminent threat" to U.S. persons.

BEYOND THE EDGES OF US WARS

Drone strikes are carried out by both the CIA and the military but the report did not break out how many were carried out by each.

The report included only strikes outside war zones, which meant that strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were not included. That significantly lowers the figure.

In Afghanistan, for example, 42 people were killed and 37 wounded in a mistaken U.S. military strike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz last year.

A U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the total of 473 strikes disclosed by the Obama administration on Friday included strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Many of those are believed to have taken place in Pakistan, where NGOs also say a large number of civilians were killed.

The New America think tank estimated up to 315 civilians were killed in Pakistan in U.S. strikes since 2004. The Long War Journal estimated 158 were killed there since 2006 and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism believed the civilian death toll could be as high as 966.

"By admitting to a smaller number of civilian killings and the method adopted he is trying to down play the whole process," Akbar said.

In Somalia, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that up to 10 civilians were killed in up to 31 drone strikes since 2007.

"Last month, a drone killed a relative of mine and a dozen of his camels and goats," local elder Mohamed Ismail from the Wanlaweyn town in southern Somalia, told Reuters. (Additional reporting by Mehreen Zahra-Malik in Islamabad; Editing by Bernard Orr and Bill Trott)

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