(New York) – New evidence has emerged that the Syrian air force has used cluster munitions in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today. Many of the strikes were near the main highway that runs through Ma'arat al-Nu'man, the site of a major confrontation between government and rebel forces this week.
Videos posted online by Syrian activists on October 9-12 showed cluster munition remnants reportedly in or near the towns of Tamane'a, Taftanaz, al-Tah, and Ma'arat al-Nu'man, in the Northern governorate of Idlib, Eastern Bouwayda and al-Salloumiyyeh in Homs governorate, Tel Rifaat in Aleppo governorate, the countryside in Lattakia governorate, and Eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. The cluster bomb canisters and submunitions shown in the videos all show damage and wear patterns produced by being mounted on and dropped from an aircraft. Residents from Taftanaz and Tamane'a confirmed in interviews with Human Rights Watch that helicopters dropped cluster munitions on or near their towns on October 9. Human Rights Watch does not yet have any information on casualties caused by the recent cluster munition strikes.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “Cluster bombs have been comprehensively banned by most nations, and Syria should immediately stop all use of these indiscriminate weapons that continue to kill and maim for years.”
Human Rights Watch is deeply concerned by the risks posed by the unexploded submunitions to the civilian population, as men and even children can be seen in the videos handling the unexploded submunitions in life-threatening ways.
At least 18 videos have been posted on YouTube by Syrian activists showing the aftermath of the cluster munition strikes in recent days. They are the latest in a continuous stream of videos showing ongoing fighting, and the Human Rights Watch interviews with residents of two of the affected towns corroborate the use of cluster munitions. Eliot Higgins, who blogs on military hardware and tactics used in Syria under the pseudonym “Brown Moses,” compiled a list of the videos showing cluster munition remnants in Syria’s various governorates. Human Rights Watch reached residents in Taftanaz and Tamane'a who confirmed the strikes on their town, but has not been able to reach residents in the other towns featured in the online videos.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that the remnants shown in the videos are RBK-250 series cluster bomb canisters and AO-1SCh fragmentation bomblets. Jane’s Information Group, a publishing company specializing in military topics, lists Syria as possessing RBK-250/275 and RBK-500 cluster bombs. These cluster bombs and explosive submunitions are Soviet-made, but there is no information available on how or when Syria acquired them.
In July, Human Rights Watch identified an RBK-250 series cluster bomb canister and AO-1SCh bomblets, apparently found in Jabal Shahshabu, Hama province, from a video. Video footage posted in August from Talbiseh in Homs governorate and from Abu Kamal in Deir al-Zor governorate also show cluster munition remnants. The August cluster munition strike on Abu Kamal appears to have involved a different type of submunition, the PTAB 2.5M, which is an anti-tank bomblet.
A resident of Taftanaz told Human Rights Watch that Syrian forces had been attacking the town for the past six weeks and that on October 9 a helicopter “dropped a [bomb] and as it fell it broke into half and released smaller [bomblets]. I heard one [initial] explosion. But after the submunitions were released I heard several [further] explosions.” The strike hit a field of olive trees south of Taftanaz, two to three kilometers from the airport. There were apparently no casualties. The resident said he saw around 30 unexploded bomblets when he went to the site.
Another resident of Taftanaz interviewed separately described another cluster strike north of the town. He told Human Rights Watch:
On October 9, I heard a big explosion followed by several smaller ones coming from Shelakh field located at the northof Taftanaz. We went to see what happened. We saw a big [bomb] cut in half and several [bomblets] that were not detonated. I personally found one that was not exploded. There were small holes in the ground. The holes were dispersed and spread around over 300 meters.
According to the resident, soldiers from the rebel Free Syria Army informed him that 20 unexploded bomblets were found in Taftanaz.
A resident of Tamane'a told Human Rights Watch that around noon on October 9, a low-flying helicopter “released a [bomb] that split in half and released smaller [bomblets]” and “the [bomb] split open between two schools, Intermediate and Elementary, very close to each other. The schools are called Zeid Abi Elharissa and Mostapha el Bakri respectively … in Ibn Batouta neighborhood.” The resident said that, “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.”
A video posted online on October 10 clearly shows remnants of an RBK-250 cluster bomb and AO-1SCh bombletsat al-Tah, another location near Tamane’a.
These unexploded submunitions are armed and can explode at the slightest touch or movement, yet civilians can be seen in some of the videos carrying the submunitions around, banging them on objects, and throwing them on the ground. A video filmed at Tamane'a shows several men handling unexploded AO-1SCh bomblets, an act that is extremely hazardous. A Tamane'a resident told Human Rights Watch that people have been taking the bomblets and remnants as “souvenirs.” In a separate video from August, a young child is filmed holding an unexploded submunition.
“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.” Goose said. “There is an urgent need for the government to facilitate risk education and emergency clearance efforts.”
Human Rights Watch also called on television stations widely watched inside Syria, such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, to run announcements alerting the population to the risks of handling these munitions.
Cluster munitions can be fired by rockets, mortars, and artillery or dropped by aircraft, including helicopters. They explode in the air, sending dozens, even hundreds, of submunitions or “bomblets” over an area the size of a football field. These bomblets often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines and explode when handled.
A majority of the world’s nations have comprehensively banned the use of cluster munitions through the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which became binding international law on August 1, 2010. Syria is not a party to the convention and did not participate in the 2007-2008 Oslo Process that led to the creation of the treaty, which bans cluster munitions and requires clearance of contaminated areas and assistance to victims. A total of 77 countries are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions while another 34 have signed but not yet ratified.
Human Rights Watch is a founding member of the international Cluster Munition Coalition, the civil society campaign behind the Convention on Cluster Munitions.