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(New York) - Government forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, have fired cluster munitions into residential areas in the western city of Misrata, posing a grave risk to civilians, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch observed at least three cluster munitions explode over the el-Shawahda neighborhood in Misrata on the night of April 14, 2011. Researchers inspected the remnants of a cluster submunition and interviewed witnesses to two other apparent cluster munition strikes.

Based on the submunition inspected by Human Rights Watch, first discovered by a reporter from The New York Times, the cluster munition is a Spanish-produced MAT-120 120mm mortar projectile, which opens in mid-air and releases 21 submunitions over a wide area. Upon exploding on contact with an object, each submunition disintegrates into high-velocity fragments to attack people and releases a slug of molten metal to penetrate armored vehicles.

"It's appalling that Libya is using this weapon, especially in a residential area," said Steve Goose, arms division director at Human Rights Watch. "They pose a huge risk to civilians, both during attacks because of their indiscriminate nature and afterward because of the still-dangerous unexploded duds scattered about."

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.

"Libya needs to halt the use of these weapons immediately, and take all steps to ensure that civilians are protected from the deadly remnants they have left behind," Goose said.

The area where Human Rights Watch witnessed the use of cluster munitions is about 1 kilometer from the front line between rebels and government forces. The submunitions appear to have landed about 300 meters from Misrata hospital. Human Rights Watch could not inspect the impact sites due to security concerns.

Human Rights Watch has not yet been able to determine if civilians in Misrata have been wounded or killed by cluster munitions.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two ambulance drivers who said they had witnessed cluster strikes prior to April 14.

Ibrahim Abuwayfa told Human Rights Watch that he was in the Al-Gzeer district of Misrata around 7 p.m. on April 13, on the coastal road called Tuarga Street, when he saw an explosion in the air and "little flames" coming down. "One of the objects landed a few meters away on a residential wall and it exploded when it hit and then shrapnel flew out," Abuwayfa said. Abuwayfa said he had heard of similar attacks that night in the Maghdar and Kurzaz areas of the city.

Waleed Srayti said he saw a cluster munition strike on April 14, at 11 a.m.  "I was in the streets behind the vegetable market," he said. "A big battle was going on in Tripoli Street at the vegetable market. I heard a noise and about 9 to 10 things started popping out of the sky over the market. I just saw the pops in the air. I saw white smoke coming down. When it went up, I didn't see anything. It was daylight. I didn't hear anything when it went up, but I heard the explosion at the top of the arc."

Cluster munitions can be fired by 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.

Based on the markings on the submunition found in Misrata, Libya used MAT-120 cluster munitions. These contain 21 dual-purpose submunitions equipped with a self-destruct feature. The submunition is considered dual-purpose because it has both anti-personnel and anti-material effects.

Upon exploding on impact with an object, the steel body of the MAT-120 submunition disintegrates into numerous high-velocity fragments to attack personnel and releases a metal slug, which is formed from an inverted copper cone inside the submunition, intended to penetrate the walls of an armored vehicle.

The MAT-120 cluster munitions used in Misrata were produced by Instalaza SA in Spain. The markings on the submunition remnant inspected by Human Rights Watch indicate it was produced in 2007.

At the end of 2008, Spain destroyed its stockpile of 1,852 MAT-120 mortar projectiles, containing a total of 38,892 submunitions. Spain signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions on December 3, 2008 and ratified on June 17, 2009.

Libya has not signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The current status and composition of Libya's stockpile are unknown. Libya used aerial cluster bombs, likely RBK bombs of Soviet/Russian origin, in Chad during the 1980s conflict.

The Convention on Cluster Munitions bans the use, production, stockpiling, and transfer of cluster munitions, requires states to destroy stockpiles, clear contaminated land, and assist victims and affected communities. Of the 108 countries that have signed the convention since it opened for signature in December 2008, 56 countries have already ratified.

Libya's use of the weapon in Misrata is the second known instance of cluster munitions use since the Convention on Cluster Munitions entered into force on August 1, 2010. Earlier this month, on April 6, 2011, the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC) concluded that Thailand used cluster munitions on Cambodian territory during a border conflict in February 2011.

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