Syria’s cluster-bomb blitz targets civilians
Syrian government forces have dropped Russian-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in the past week as they battle to reverse rebel gains on a strategic highway, according to reports compiled by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters, with many of the strikes taking place near the main north-south highway running through the north-western town of Maarat al-Numan, HRW said.
Rebels seized the town from president Bashar al-Assad’s troops last week, cutting the route from the capital Damascus to Aleppo. Government forces have been trying to retake the area since then.
HRW has previously reported Syrian use of cluster bombs, which have been banned by most countries, in July and August, but the renewed strikes indicate the government’s determination to regain strategic control in the north-west.
Cluster munitions can drop hundreds of bomblets on a wide area as an anti-personnel weapon, designed to kill as many people as possible.
Human rights groups say their use in civilian-populated areas can be a war crime.
More than 100 nations, inclluding Britain, have banned their use, stockpiling, transfer or sale under a convention which became international law in 2010, but Syria has not signed it, nor have Russia, China or the United States.
Bomblets that do not initially explode can litter the ground, killing and maiming civilians long after a war is over.
Towns targeted included Maarat, Tamanea, Taftanaz and al-Tah. Cluster bombs have also been used in other areas in Homs, Aleppo and Lattakia provinces, as well as near Damascus, HRW said.
“Syria’s disregard for its civilian population is all too evident in its air campaign, which now apparently includes dropping these deadly cluster bombs into populated areas,” said Steve Goose, arms director at the New York-based group.
Initial information about the use of the explosives came from videos posted online by opposition activists, although HRW investigators said it had confirmed the incidents in interviews with residents in two towns.
It had no information on casualties. The cluster bombs were Russian-made, but it was not known how or when Syria acquired them, HRW said.
Residents from Taftanaz and Tamanea told HRW interviewers that helicopters dropped cluster munitions last Tuesday. One that hit Tamanea released smaller bomblets in an area between two schools, a resident was quoted as saying.
“The bomblets that exploded were the ones that hit the ground on the tip. We collected the ones that didn’t explode. their tip didn’t touch the ground,” the resident said.
People were taking away unexploded bomblets as souvenirs, a highly dangerous action as they can still explode at the slightest touch or movement. Video showed some civilians carrying the bomblets around and throwing them on the ground.
“The cluster munition strikes and unexploded ordnance they leave behind pose a huge danger to civilian populations, who often seem unaware how easily these submunitions could still explode,” Mr Goose said.
On the ground, rebels surrounded an army garrison yesterday near a north-western town, in the latest push to seize more territory in a province near the Turkish border, opposition activists said.
Rebels also posted video on the internet showing a MiG021 fighter jet they had shot down in the area the previous day.
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