Cluster Bombs

Israeli-fired cluster bombs still kill, maim after war's end

August 31, 2006


YUHMOUR, Lebanon (AP) _ The fighting stopped two weeks ago, but it's still too dangerous for Abdullah Ziaeddine to move back into his war-blasted home, much less start to rebuild.

His yard, like hundreds of fields, villas and roads across Lebanon, is littered with unexploded bomblets from an Israeli cluster bomb attack that spewed small and deadly metal canisters. One step in the wrong place risks injury, loss of a limb _ or death.

The fist-sized bomblets, leftovers from the Israeli military fight against Hezbollah guerrillas, have killed 13 people and wounded 48 others in Lebanon since the Aug. 14 truce, said Dalya Farran, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center here.

Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, drew attention to the issue Wednesday when he called Israel's use of the weapons cruel.

"What's shocking and I would say, to me, completely immoral is that 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution," Egeland said.

Israel has stressed that all the weapons it uses are legal under international law.

No international treaties or laws specifically forbid the use of cluster bombs, but the Geneva Conventions outline rules to protect civilians during conflict. Because cluster bombs often maim civilians after fighting ends, their use by Israel against targets in Lebanese cities and towns has been criticized by human rights groups.

The U.S. State Department's Office of Defense Trade Controls is investigating whether Israel inappropriately used U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas during the conflict.

More than 400 cluster bomb sites have been found so far in Lebanon, and survey teams are finding dozens more every day, Farran said. The bomblets _ small metallic spheres or black and gray cylinders _ are about as big and powerful as a grenade.

"I don't walk around here anymore," Ziaeddine said, pointing to half a dozen bomblets that failed to explode on impact, lying atop dirt in his yard. Bomblets that did work tore at least a dozen small holes through Ziaeddine's roof and the walls of a villa.

The 36-year-old businessman is staying in a relative's home on the edge of town with his wife and 2-year-old son, waiting for a bomb squad to sweep his property _ something that could take weeks or months.

The U.N. estimates around 250,000 people cannot move back to their homes because they were either leveled during fighting or because missiles, shells and cluster bombs sit unexploded around them.

During the 34-day war, Israel used the bombs to attack Hezbollah fighters, who often use village streets and civilian neighborhoods in southern Lebanon to launch rockets at Israel.

When the bombs started to fall on Yuhmour, a tiny Shiite village in foothills about 10 miles from the Israeli border, most of the residents fled. It was not clear if Hezbollah fighters used the village as a base during the fighting, but the vast majority of Shiites in Lebanon support the guerrilla fighters.

In a classic battle between two armies, cluster bombs are designed to destroy or slow enemy forces by spreading a blanket of explosives across an area the size of one or two soccer fields. Fired by cannon or dropped from an aircraft, the bombs release hundreds of smaller bomblets in mid-air that are supposed to explode upon impact.

Farran said 10 percent typically fail to detonate, but at some sites in Lebanon demining teams have estimated failure rates as high as 70 percent.

The U.N. has identified 405 bomb strike areas contaminated with up to 100,000 unexploded bomblets.

Along the main street in Yuhmour, red and white tape seals off parts of yards and abandoned houses where unexploded bomblets were found. Red arrows spray-painted on piles of rubble point to more bomblets lying in debris. Others are unmarked and residents, suspecting more nearby, keep far away.

One woman sat in the collapsed ruins of her single-story home, confined to a small path because bomblets had been found everywhere else.

In Yuhmour this week, teams from the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental agency that clears mines, blocked traffic as ordnance disposal experts deliberately blew up more than 50 bomblets one by one, shaking the village. Lebanese army troops are also working in other areas to defuse or destroy them.

For many, the disposal process is too slow.

"They're not doing enough, fast enough," said Chirine Mehdi, a 33-year-old mother of two who has warned her children to stay indoors or on main roads when outside. "The war is over. Why do we have to keep living in fear?"

Farran said there aren't enough disposal teams.

Larger artillery shells and missiles also litter yards and streets, but the U.N. and the Lebanese army have shifted their focus to cluster bomblets, which are considered more of a threat because they're far more numerous, harder to spot and appear innocuous, Farran said.

In the southeastern border village of Blida on Saturday, 11-year-old Ali Hussein Hassan picked up a bomblet he thought was an old perfume container. It exploded, wounding him and three other children, said his mother Fatima Hussein Hassan.

At a hospital in Nabatiyeh where the four were brought, one of the boys lay on a bed with tubes streaming vital fluids into his stomach. The 6-year-old, wincing in pain whenever he moved, had been struck by 50 tiny bits of shrapnel and a larger fragment that ripped through his intestines, family members said.

"What did these children do to anybody? They're innocent," said Fatima, standing beside her bedridden son whose right leg was broken when he was thrown back by the blast. "We survived the war, but we are still being attacked," she said.

Copyright 2006 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.