UN asks for drone attacks to be taken out of CIA's hands

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The Independent Online

A United Nations report due to be delivered today will call for the US military to take over from the CIA in running unmanned drone aircraft that are used to kill insurgents.

Philip Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, will say that the transfer is necessary to obtain greater accountability over the attacks, which have at times led to deaths of innocent civilians.

Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, one of Osama bin Laden's most senior lieutenants, in charge of al-Qa'ida's Afghan war, was last month assassinated by missiles fired from a drone in Pakistan. It was the latest in an increasing number of cases when an unmanned aircraft was used in the Afghan conflict under the Obama administration. Washington recently changed domestic laws to permit the assassination abroad of terrorist suspects of US nationality in preparation, it is believed, for a possible drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an Islamist preacher currently in Yemen.

As he prepared to hand over his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Mr Alston said that if a bombing went wrong in Afghanistan there was "abundant accountability" if the US Defense Department was responsible. "The whole process that follows is very open. Whereas if the CIA is doing it, by definition, they are not going to answer questions... there is no willingness to comply with any of the requirements as to transparency and accountability."

Mr Alston's report has no legal standing but will embarrass the American Government, which faces repeated protests from Pakistan over the violation of its airspace and concern from the Afghan leadership over civilian casualties.

The issue will also raise questions about American plans to prosecute Guantánamo Bay detainees accused of killing US forces in combat. Government lawyers claim that the suspects do not enjoy legal protection given to soldiers under the Geneva Convention because they are not members of national or conventional forces.

However the CIA personnel operating the unmanned aircraft from the Agency's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, are also not, say critics, members of the US armed forces and are not taking part in conventional warfare.

General Stanley McChrystal, the US commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has ordered a major reduction in the use of warplanes to lessen the numbers of civilians killed and injured. However, while the number of air strikes has fallen in Afghanistan, it has risen across in neighbouring Pakistan where most of senior Taliban and al-Qa'ida commanders are based.

Pentagon officials say that the drone missions have to be flown by the CIA because of the sensitive intelligence involved in planning and executing attacks.