The attack took place near Radda, a hilltop city roughly 100 miles southeast of Sanaa. For more than a year, drones had been circling day and night over Radda and surrounding areas, and one or two had been flying overhead on the morning of Sept. 2, the witnesses said. Shortly before 4 p.m., three of the witnesses said, two warplanes also swooped into the area. (The Washington Post article notes that some witnesses saw three planes.)
"I heard a very loud noise, like thunder," said Sami al-Ezzi, a farmer who was working in his fields in Sabool, a farming village six miles from Radda. "I looked up and saw two warplanes. One was firing missiles."
Arriving at the scene, about 1.5 miles from Sabool, local residents found a horrific sight: The battered Toyota Land Cruiser that had served as the daily shuttle between Sabool and Radda lay on its side in flames. All the dead and injured were Sabool residents returning from Radda.
"About four people were without heads. Many lost their hands and legs," said Nawaf Massoud Awadh, a sheikh from Sabool who saw the attack. "These were our relatives and friends."
Sabooli's mother was in the vehicle because her husband had taken her to Radda to see a doctor. Other passengers were farmers who had gone to Radda to sell their crop of khat, a legal and widely used stimulant in Yemen. Only two passengers, both men, survived. Both lost their ability to walk, the witnesses said.
The witnesses who met me in Sanaa brought along videos showing the Land Cruiser overturned and in flames, near two craters created by the strike -- one immediately behind the vehicle and the other nearby. Bodies lay on the ground in contorted heaps.
"Push! Push!" "Open the door!" local residents are heard crying. Seeking to extinguish the flames, they urged, "Bring sand!"
One video shows a man pulling a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the wreckage and throwing it aside. (This may seem like a smoking gun, but it's common for men to be armed with assault rifles in tribal areas of Yemen such as al-Bayda that are outside government control.)
The Sept. 2 strike was the seventh in al-Bayda that local or international media had attributed to U.S. or Yemeni forces since January 2012. That month, a band of militants from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took control of Radda for 10 days -- some accounts say with help from loyalists of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who were trying to spoil Yemen's political transition. After being forced out by local tribal leaders, many militants reportedly disappeared into the surrounding villages.
The attack's reported target was Abdulraouf al-Dahab, an alleged al Qaeda militant whose brother led the January takeover of Radda. Dahab is from Manasseh, a village about 14 kilometers from Radda. The attack took place as the shuttle approached an intersection where one road led to Sabool and the other to Manasseh. But witnesses, as well as unnamed government officials quoted by media, said Dahab was not inside the Land Cruiser. Nor was the SUV even traveling to Manasseh; it was completing its daily round trip between Sabool and Radda. A Yemeni newspaper reported that Dahab was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Radda six days later, but some residents of the Radda area say he is still alive.
Media reports, quoting unnamed Yemeni officials, attributed the Sept. 2 attack to U.S. drones; others to manned warplanes. Two witnesses told me they saw warplanes fire munitions that they thought were bombs and missiles. Two witnesses also told me they saw a black tail fin near the burning SUV. (A black tail fin is typical of a Hellfire, a U.S. missile that can be fired by either drones or jet fighters.) The shrapnel that witnesses brought us from the site, however, is more consistent with the type of damage caused by a bomb -- which would point to an attack by manned jets. But even these scraps of information are inconclusive: Yemen's air force has fighter jets, while the United States reportedly flies F-15E Strike Eagles (as well as armed and surveillance drones) over Yemen from a military base in Djibouti.