NAIROBI — For years, the U.S. military has denied that any of its airstrikes in Somalia against the extremist group al-Shabab have resulted in civilian casualties, but a new report released Tuesday by Amnesty International alleges that 14 civilians were killed in five airstrikes in 2017 and 2018.

The accuracy of the U.S. military’s drone strikes in Somalia has come under increased scrutiny since President Trump relaxed rules of engagement there in March 2017, when he declared the southern part of the country an “area of active hostilities.” Since then, the number of strikes — carried out by Reaper drones and manned aircraft — has dramatically increased, as have worries about a possible civilian toll.

U.S. forces have carried out 28 airstrikes in Somalia so far this year, on pace to triple the 47 acknowledged strikes it carried out in 2018. A large portion of the strikes are carried out in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region, where Amnesty did its investigation, which included more than 150 interviews and analyses of satellite imagery and munition fragments.

In response to the report, U.S. Africa Command released its own assessments of the five highlighted strikes and maintained that they caused no civilian casualties, arguing that Amnesty’s capability to gather intelligence in a war zone couldn’t compare to the military’s. The report says the civilian casualties it documents resulted from strikes that “may amount to war crimes.”

“The civilian death toll we’ve uncovered in just a handful of strikes suggests the shroud of secrecy surrounding the U.S. role in Somalia’s war is actually a smokescreen for impunity,” Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s senior crisis adviser on arms and military operations, said in a statement released with the report. “Our findings directly contradict the U.S. military’s mantra of zero civilian casualties in Somalia.”

A spokesman for U.S. Africa Command, commonly known as AFRICOM, said in a statement: “In only 4 of the 5 allegations were we able to correlate some of the data AI provided with AFRICOM strikes, but found no civilian casualties resulted from those strikes. In one allegation, we did not conduct a strike on that date, in that location.”

In a written response to the report, AFRICOM maintained that it goes to “extraordinary lengths” to avoid civilian casualties and said it conducted post-strike analyses “using intelligence methods not available to non-military organizations.” It said that in 110 strikes since June 2017, 800 al-Shabab fighters had been killed. The statement also appeared to accuse Amnesty of falling for al-Shabab propaganda.

“It is in the interest of the terrorist group al-Shabaab to untruthfully claim civilian casualties. It is also in the interest of al-Shabaab to coerce community members to make untrue claims,” it read, in part.

AFRICOM acknowledged three ongoing “civilian casualty assessments,” including one from a strike that took place Monday in Lower Shabelle. A reporter from the Reuters news agency spoke with a cousin of one of the victims, who said that his relative, an employee of Somalia’s main telecommunications company, was “totally burnt.”

Al-Shabab once controlled much of Somalia, imposing a strict version of sharia law, but since 2011 it has lost control in most urban areas. It still controls much of Somalia’s rural south.

The United States has around 500 troops based in the country, and an African Union-sponsored coalition has more than 20,000 troops in a constellation of bases. U.S. drones fly from bases within Somalia as well as from a much larger base in neighboring Djibouti. 

Somali human rights advocates have documented alleged civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes for years, but many lack the resources of a large international organization such as Amnesty International. Still, many say that more airstrikes mean more civilian casualties because al-Shabab fighters live among civilians in rural areas.

“Drones will never finish off al-Shabab. They are among the people. You cannot kill them all without killing many regular people,” said Mahat Abdi Dore, a member of Parliament from Lower Shabelle. “The people of Lower Shabelle are suffering from al-Shabab but also from what I might call American hit-and-runs.”

Federico Borello, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said it was unclear how AFRICOM determines which people are “sufficiently affiliated” with al-Shabab “to warrant inclusion in lethal targeting decisions.”

“Considering all military-age males in areas held by al-Shabab as enemy combatants is not a smart policy, and many civilians are hurt and killed,” said Mohamed Mubarak, executive director of the Hiraal Institute, a think tank focused on Somalia. “This policy could end up making its own assumption true by further radicalizing those living in areas held by al-Shabab.”