DEFENCE Secretary Philip Hammond has refused to rule out the possibility that Britain will join the US’ covert drone programme in Yemen, despite the fact that there is no declared war in the country.
Hammond’s comments were made while escorting a group of journalists around the RAF base at Waddington in Lincolnshire on Tuesday, from where UK Reaper drones are currently flown in Afghanistan.
In response to a question about whether UK drones could be flown in Yemen, he said: ‘We have to pursue the terrorists wherever they take themselves . . . Wherever there’s an ungoverned space there’s a risk (of terrorist activity).’
Last week, a US drone strike hit a wedding party in Yemen, killing an estimated 15 people and injuring many more.
The strike was described by a Yemeni official as having been a ‘tragic mistake’.
The strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have been criticised for violating international and domestic law and condemned by both the Yemeni and Pakistani parliaments.
Legal charity Reprieve – which represents civilian victims of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen – is currently taking the UK government to court on behalf of Pakistani Noor Khan, whose father was killed in a March 2011 strike, alongside around 50 other people who had met to resolve a local dispute over chromite mining.
Mr Khan is asking the UK to reveal its policy on intelligence sharing with the US for use in the CIA’s covert drone war.
The government has so far refused to reveal this policy or to discuss how it is involved with US drone strikes.
Responding to the Defence Secretary’s comments, Reprieve’s Legal Director Kat Craig, said: ‘Philip Hammond will need to do a lot more than this latest charm offensive to convince the world that drones are clean and safe and nothing to be concerned about.
‘He refused to rule out the British use of armed drones in Yemen, where just last week a US strike hit a wedding convoy killing at least 15 civilians.
‘Is Mr Hammond now suggesting that UK drones might join US drones outside of declared warzones?’
The government has confirmed that RAF Waddington’s elite 13 Squadron will remain the spearhead of armed Reaper drones for the foreseeable future.
The Lincolnshire base began controlling armed drones over Afghanistan from RAF Waddington earlier this year.
The shift from a US base was a major switch in drone policy.
Hammond confirmed on Tuesday that the base will remain at the forefront of drone warfare ‘for the foreseeable future’.
He said: ‘These are able to deliver so much additional support to our troops on the ground and have such fantastic endurance they can stay in the air for many, many hours, gathering intelligence and feeding it back.’
Asked for his response to those who complain that use of unmanned drones increases the risk of civilian casualties, Hammond replied: ‘We get pretty fed-up with it,’ adding: ‘It is very regrettable but that is the nature of warfare and that can happen with piloted aircraft.’