(New York) – A pair of videos posted online by a user believed to be a Syrian activist on July 10, 2012, appear to show cluster munition remnants, Human Rights Watch said today. The images include Soviet-produced unexploded submunitions and a bomb canister, apparently found in Jabal Shahshabu, a mountainous area near Hama.
An activist in the area told Human Rights Watch that the region where the cluster remnants were allegedly found has been under sustained bombardment by Syrian forces over the past two weeks.
“These videos show identifiable cluster bombs and submunitions,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. “If confirmed, this would be the first documented use of these highly dangerous weapons by the Syrian armed forces during the conflict.”
Arms experts from Human Rights Watch and the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining said that one video shows the remnants of a RBK-250 series cluster bomb canister, while the second shows at least unexploded 15 AO-1Sch submunitions, small fragmentation bomblets that are delivered by RBK bombs. Both the RBK cluster bomb and AO-1Sch submunitions are Soviet-made.
A second, larger, explosive submunition also appears in one of the videos, and most likely is a Soviet-produced PTAB-series anti-tank submunition, which would indicate that multiple bombs were dropped during the incident, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has not yet been able to determine if civilians in Jabel Shahshabu have been wounded or killed by cluster munitions.
Cluster munitions can be fired by rockets, mortars, and artillery or dropped by aircraft. They explode in the air, sending dozens, even hundreds, of submunitions or “bomblets” over an area the size of a football field. These submunitions often fail to explode on initial impact, leaving duds that act like landmines.
Syria is not known to have previously used cluster munitions and it is not believed to be a producer, but it has imported cluster munitions in the past and has a stockpile. Jane’s Information Group, a publishing company specializing in military topics, lists Syria as possessing RBK-250/275 and RBK-500 cluster bombs.
The YouTube videos were uploaded by “Afamia1985,” a user who lists his location as Qal`et al-Madeeq (Castle Strait in English) and who has posted more than 250 videos from Syria since joining YouTube in May 2011. Human Rights Watch was unable to reach “Afamia1985” but spoke to another activist in the region who knows him and confirmed that Afamia1985 was filming in Jabel Shahshabu. The video of the submunitions shows men physically handling the unexploded submunitions, which is extremely dangerous as they can explode during handling.
The mountainous area of Jabel Shahshabu lies northwest of the city of Hama and extends from the town of Qal`et al-Madeeq to Kafr `Oweid. The local activist said that the mountainous area is an opposition stronghold, that many opposition fighters have sought shelter in its numerous caves, and that the Syrian army and air force have bombarded the area for the last two weeks.
“Every day we see helicopters flying over the area and firing at us,” he told Human Rights Watch. “There are also war planes though they fire less frequently. We are also being shelled by artillery.”
Video footage emerging from the area in the past several days has shown remnants from OFAB 250/275 high explosive unguided bombs.
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 in August 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 73 states are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, including Lebanon, while another 38 have signed but not yet ratified.
The Third Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions will be held in Oslo, Norway on September 11 to 14.
In May, new cluster munition use was reported in Sudan, another non-signatory to the Convention on Cluster Munitions. In 2011, non-signatories Libya and Thailand also used cluster munitions.
Correction: The July 12, 2012 news release “Syria: Evidence of Cluster Munitions Use by Syrian Forces” incorrectly states that 250-kilogram class RBK-series cluster bombs and OFAB-series fragmentation bombs can only be delivered from jet aircraft. Rotary wing aircraft, such as Mi-24 and Mi-8 series helicopters, are also capable of carrying and releasing both types of bombs.