WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Despite having little history of domestic terrorism, New Zealand and Australia were drawn into the global debate on drone strikes Wednesday after confirming that a citizen from each country was killed in Yemen last year.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said the men were killed during a November counter-terror drone strike along with three known al-Qaida operatives. He said the New Zealander had been watched by intelligence agencies and had first attended some kind of terrorist training camp.
Key said he thought drone strikes by the United States were justified in some circumstances.
"I think they are legitimate, at certain times, where countries are trying to contend with very dangerous situations and they are trying to deal with those terrorists without putting their own people in harm's way," he said.
Key said he thought the November strike was such a justified occasion: "I suspect so, yes, given that three of the people killed were well-known al-Qaida operatives."
U.S. drone strikes against suspected terrorists have proved contentious because they don't allow for a trial and can kill innocent bystanders. A federal judge this month dismissed a lawsuit against Obama administration officials for the 2011 drone-strike killings of three U.S. citizens in Yemen, including an al-Qaida cleric.
The Australian newspaper first reported the Australasians' deaths. The newspaper said Wednesday the men were killed Nov. 19 during a Predator drone strike on militants traveling in a convoy of cars in Yemen's eastern region of Hadramout. It said the militants were part of Yemen's al-Qaida branch, also called al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
The newspaper identified the Australian as Christopher Harvard of Townsville.
Harvard's stepfather, Neil Dowrick, told the newspaper he'd received a government letter indicating his stepson had been buried in Yemen.
"From what we understand, Chris was buried on Friday," Dowrick said.
Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said the men were killed during a "counterterrorism operation," but did not give further details.
"There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation," the department said in a statement Wednesday.
Key said it took some time to positively identify the New Zealander using DNA samples. He said officials wouldn't be naming the man but that he was known as "Muslim bin John." Key said he understands bin John, who was also an Australian national, was buried in Yemen.
He said bin John had been the subject of a New Zealand intelligence warrant, a document that authorizes agencies to spy on an individual.
"I think all that shows is the things that I have been saying for quite some time — that we need our intelligence agencies to track our people, that there are New Zealanders who go and put themselves in harm's way — have all been proven to be correct," Key said.