WASHINGTON

A Yemeni writer and activist told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that aUSdrone strike on his small town ofWessab"tore my heart," much as the Boston Marathon bombings upset Americans.

"Most of the world has never heard of Wessab. But just six days ago, my village was struck by a drone, in an attack that terrified thousands of simple, poor farmers," Farea al-Muslimi, who studied in the United States as an exchange student when he was 16, said in prepared testimony.

"The drone strike and its impact tore my heart, much as the tragic bombings inBostonlast week tore your hearts and also mine."

Muslimi testified that he was with an American colleague in the town ofAbyanlast year when the local residents suddenly became worried.

"They were moving erratically and frantically pointing toward the sky. Based on their past experiences with drone strikes, they told us that the thing hovering above us - out of sight and making a strange humming noise - was an American drone. My heart sank. I was helpless. It was the first time that I had earnestly feared for my life, or for an American friend’s life inYemen. I was standing there at the mercy of a drone. I also couldn’t help but think that the operator of this drone just might be my American friend with whom I had the warmest and deepest friendship inAmerica," Muslimi said.

"My mind was racing and my heart was torn," Muslimi continued in his statement. "I was torn between the great country that I know and love and the drone above my head that could not differentiate between me and some militant. It was one of the most divisive and difficult feelings I have ever encountered. That feeling, multiplied by the highest number mathematicians have, gripped me when my village was droned just days ago. It is the worst feeling I have ever had. I was devastated for days because I knew that the bombing in my village by the United States would empower militants."

“They (Yemeni people) fear that their home or a neighbour’s home could be bombed at any time by a US drone,” said Muslimi. “What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: There is now an intense anger and growing hatred of America.”

Senators from both parties lamented that the White House declined to make a witness available for the hearing, titled “Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterrorism Implications of Targeted Killings.”

Senator Richard Durbin, a democrat, who presided over the hearing, said it was important to review whether current laws sanction drone strikes in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, where the United States is not formally fighting a war but relies on remotely piloted aircraft to killed suspected militants.

 “The use of drones has, in stark terms, made targeted killing more efficient and less costly - in terms of American blood and treasure,” said Durbin, who noted that the hearing was the first of its kind. “There are, however, long-term consequences, especially when these airstrikes kill innocent civilians.”

The legal underpinning of the drone programme is a congressional resolution passed a week after the September 11, 2001, attacks, authorising the use of military force. Legal experts say the new realities of American warfare urgently need an updated rule book.

President Barack Obama has said he would like Congress to help him establish a “legal architecture” for targeted killing to “make sure that not only I am reined in but any president is reined in.” But no such legislative initiative appears to be underway.

Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown University law professor who served as a Pentagon policy adviser, said the use of drones would not necessarily be problematic if the country had a clear and legally sound legal framework for targeted killings.

 “Every individual detained, targeted, and killed by the US government may well deserve his fate,” she said. “But when a government claims for itself the unreviewable power to kill anyone, anywhere on Earth, at any time, based on secret criteria and secret information discussed in a secret process by largely unnamed individuals, it undermines the rule of law.”

Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally, who oversaw targeting operations in Africa, said remotely piloted aircraft have proven to be highly precise, nimble weapons and argued that their use is currently subject to a thorough review process. “The time between strike approval and weapons release is minimal, maximizing the opportunity to reach the desired effect,” she said.

Muslimi said that across villages in Yemen, mention of the weapons elicits such fear that parents have come to use the threat of drone strikes to get kids to go to bed.

“Go to sleep or I will call the planes,” he said, quoting a parental tactic he recently learned about.