Baku-APA. On January 23, science teacher Ali Nasser al-Qawli had finished supervising school exams in the Yemeni village of Khawlan and was enjoying an afternoon with friends when he encountered the strangers, APA reports quoting Reuters.
They wanted a lift in a taxi Qawli and his nephew were in. A while later, locals say, an American aircraft fired missiles at the vehicle.
"All of us in the village heard a large explosion," said Qawli's brother, Mohamed, who rushed to the scene. "We picked up the burned body parts. They were all over. We picked them up and put them in plastic bags, and took them to the hospital so we could bury them the next day," he said. "My brother was completely charred. We identified him by his teeth. It's as if they killed animals."
A copy of the Khalid bin al-Walid school attendance register shows Qawli's signature for the first four days of that week. Under Thursday it says: "Martyred on January 23, 2013."
At the time local sources told Reuters the strike killed at least six suspected al Qaeda militants.
The Yemeni government now says Qawli, who had three children, and his nephew were not militants but innocent civilians. In a statement, it concluded: "We can confirm the following: Ali al-Qawli ... did not know or communicate with the individuals who rented the mentioned car and their death was a matter of fate."
It was just one instance in which Yemeni civilians have perished in U.S. drone strikes, which are Washington's favored method of combating al Qaeda in Yemen.
On Thursday, 15 people on their way to a wedding were killed when an air strike missed its intended target of suspected militants, Yemeni officials said. It was not clear whether a drone or a Yemeni aircraft was responsible for the attack.
The United States says its drone program has been successful in eliminating members of al Qaeda in various countries. Some Yemenis say had it not been for such strikes, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) could have seized more territory across Yemen.
Yemeni foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi told Reuters in September that the drone strikes were a "necessary evil" and a "very limited affair" that happens in coordination with the Yemeni government.
Other Yemenis, and some U.S. politicians, say the strikes and civilian casualties are increasing sympathy for AQAP and resentment against America. AQAP, which has scattered across the country, is now targeting local police and security officials, who have only tenuous control in Yemen.
There are near daily suicide attacks on Yemeni police and security forces, which Yemeni officials blame on suspected AQAP militants. On December 5 more than 50 people died when an estimated 12 militants attacked the Yemeni defense ministry compound in Sanaa.
The threat is more than local: Yemen borders oil producer Saudi Arabia and is next to major shipping routes.
Mohamed, brother of the dead Qawli, told Reuters: "These (drone) strikes create more terrorism. In our area there was never anyone linked to al Qaeda. After the strike, everyone in the area started listening to al Qaeda types, exchanging videos on mobile phones."
He said that many houses in his area now fly a black flag carrying an Islamic expression of faith - a symbol al Qaeda often uses.
U.S. Congressman Alan Grayson, a Democrat representative in Florida, told Reuters that according to one U.S. official who served in Yemen, "every drone death yields 50 to 60 new recruits for Al Qaeda." Grayson, who recently participated in a Congressional briefing that included relatives of victims of drone strikes, described the drone policy as "ineffective."
The Yemeni government, struggling to assert control over vast swathes of territory where rebels and secessionists sometimes hold sway, tolerates the attacks and does not usually comment on the U.S. role in specific incidents. But Rajeh Badi, the media advisor to Yemen's prime minister, told Reuters: "The strikes have caused, in some instances, the joining of some individuals with AQAP with the motive of revenge, especially when the strikes target innocents."
Asked about the drone program and civilian casualties, a U.S. State Department official referred to President Barack Obama's comments in May in which Obama said that before any strike is made "there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."
The official added: "Yemen and the United States are robust partners in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. We support the efforts of the Yemeni government and its security forces in combating AQAP."