(Beirut) – There is credible evidence of the use of banned cluster bombs in at least two locations in Libya since December 2014.
Phone interviews with witnesses and photographic evidence reviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that remnants of RBK-250 PTAB 2.5M cluster bombs were found at Bin Jawad in February 2015 and at Sirte in March. The good condition of the paint on the bomb casings and lack of extensive weathering indicated that the remnants had not been exposed to the environment for long and were from a recent attack. The Libyan Air Force recently bombed both locations, but denied using cluster munitions. It is not possible to determine responsibility on the basis of available evidence.
“The new evidence of cluster munitions use in Libya is highly disturbing,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch and chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition. “Libyan authorities should investigate these incidents and make sure its forces don’t use cluster munitions.”
Hostilities since May 2014 have left Libya with rival governments: an internationally recognized government based in the east, and a self-proclaimed government in Tripoli backed by an alliance of militias known as Libya Dawn that controls much of western Libya. Both claim legitimacy as the sole political authority, but neither has been able to exert full control nationally.
On March 11, Human Rights Watch spoke by phone with Brig. Gen. Saqr al-Jerroushi, commander of the Libyan Air Force of the internationally recognized government. Brig. Gen. Al-Jerroushi acknowledged that his forces had carried out air strikes in February and March in Ben Jawad and Sirte as well as in Watiya, among other locations, but denied that forces under his command used cluster bombs in any of the reported air strike locations. Al-Jerroushi said the Air Force had no access to cluster bombs. “While the airstrikes continue every day against militias, the Libyan Army has access to only traditional, heavy munitions such as what was used during the Second World War,” he said. “We have no cluster munitions.”
Since May 2014, forces affiliated with the internationally recognized government based in eastern Libya and under the command of Gen. Khalifa Hiftar have been engaged in a military operation against Libya Dawn. Hiftar’s operation, known as Libya Dignity, involves former members of the military, tribal factions, and militias from the mountain town of Zintan. Libya Dawn is led by forces from Misrata and includes militias from Tripoli, Zawiyah, Sebratha, and elsewhere.
The use of cluster munitions in populated areas, such as Sirte, violates the laws of war due to the indiscriminate nature of the weapon. Cluster munitions contain dozens or hundreds of smaller munitions, called submunitions or bomblets, in a container such as a rocket or a bomb. After launch, the container opens up, dispersing submunitions designed to explode when they hit the ground. The submunitions spread indiscriminately over a wide area, often the size of a football field, putting anyone in the area at the time, whether combatants or civilians, at risk of death or injury. Many submunitions do not explode on impact, but remain armed, becoming de facto landmines. Any location contaminated with dud submunitions remains hazardous until cleared by trained explosive ordnance disposal personnel.
Libya should join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, prohibiting the use of cluster munitions in any circumstance, Human Rights Watch said. A total of 116 nations are party to the treaty, which also requires clearance of cluster munition remnants and assistance to victims of the weapons. Human Rights Watch is a cofounder of the international Cluster Munition Coalition and serves as its chair.
“Most nations have banned these weapons due to their inherently indiscriminate nature and the unacceptable harm they pose to civilians,” Goose said. “The internationally recognized government in Libya and parties to the conflict should urgently secure and destroy any stocks of cluster munitions.”
Recent Evidence of Cluster Munitions use in Libya
On March 3, 2015, Brigade 166 fighters from the Libya Dawn alliance showed journalists a remnant of a tail of a bomb lying near one of their positions. From a review of the available photo evidence taken by international journalists, Human Rights Watch identified the weapon used as an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb containing PTAB-2.5M submunitions. The good condition of the paint on the bomb casing and lack of extensive weathering indicates the remnant had not been exposed to the environment for long and is from a recent attack.
A journalist working for another international news outlet told Human Rights Watch that a commander from the Libya Dawn alliance had told him on March 3 that several cluster bombs hit and exploded near where the remnant had landed. The journalist said he observed holes purportedly showing the impact of submunitions.
On March 10, The New York Times reported that “similar munitions had evidently exploded nearby in recent days and left fragments of shrapnel in cup-size holes blasted into the dirt.” The report of small pock marks in the area suggests that some submunitions detonated on impact, Human Rights Watch said.
Several sources confirmed to Human Rights Watch that cluster munitions are also believed to have been used recently in the town of Bin Jawad, where the Libya Dawn alliance also has a presence, and near a front line by the port of Es-Sidr, where forces aligned with the internationally recognized government are fighting Dawn forces for control of oil terminals. The Libyan Air Force has carried out airstrikes there in recent months.
In the first week of February, Frederic Wehrey, a researcher for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, photographed several PTAB-2.5M submunitions in the rubble of the al-Wahda Bank in Bin Jawad. He said that a Libya Dawn commander told him that it was from an airstrike by the Libyan Air Force on or about January 9.
Human Rights Watch spoke by phone on March 11 with the Libya Dawn commander in charge of Bin Jawad, who said that the Libyan Air Force had dropped cluster bombs on at least two occasions in December 2014 and continued to drop them between January and March. He said the most recent attack, on March 6, 2015, killed a civilian at his farm. Human Rights Watch was unable to verify the death or its cause.
An international security adviser who visited Ben Jawad in February told Human Rights Watch that he had seen cluster munition remnants in various locations around the town, which he described as RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bombs. The good condition of the paint on the bomb casing and lack of extensive weathering indicated the remnants had not been exposed to the environment for long and were from a recent attack, Human Rights Watch said, after reviewing photo evidence.
Each RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb contains 30 PTAB-2.5M high explosive anti-tank (HE/AT) submunitions.
Watiya front – Western Libya
On February 27, a Facebook site run by a Libyan group calling itself the border guards unit posted photographs showing the remnants of a RBK-250-275 AO-1SCh cluster bomb, but no bomblets. The photographs were purportedly taken on the same date or shortly before at the Watiya front where Libya Dawn has been fighting forces aligned with Libya Dignity. Watiya is about 120 kilometers southwest of Tripoli.
Human Rights Watch has been unable to speak to anyone who was at the front during that period. The good condition of the paint on the bomb casing and lack of rust indicates that the remnants had not been exposed to the environment for long and were from a recent attack at the time the photograph was taken. Each RBK-250-275 AO-1SCh cluster bomb contains 150 AO-1SCh antipersonnel fragmentation bomblets.
On February 12, a photograph posted on the Facebook page of a Libyan satellite TV station showed two men wearing fatigues, one of which had Libyan army insignia, standing in front of an RBK-250 PTAB-2.5M cluster bomb affixed to a military aircraft. The provenance of the photograph is unclear but writing on the bomb refers to the Jordanian Pilot Moadh al-Kasasbeh, who was killed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, in February, suggesting it is a recent image.
Previous Use of Cluster Munitions by Libyan Forces
Libya is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions, but in the past it imported and stockpiled the weapons. According to Handicap International, Libyan government forces used air-delivered cluster munitions at various locations during its intervention in Chad during the 1986-1987 conflict, likely RBK-series cluster bombs containing AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M submunitions.
Based on remnants identified by Human Rights Watch and others at the scene of cluster munition attacks as well as weapons located at storage facilities since the 2011 conflict, Libya’s stockpile of cluster munitions included at least air-dropped bombs (RBK-series containing AO-1SCh and PTAB-2.5M bomblets), surface-fired munitions (MAT-120 mortar projectiles), and an unknown type of submunition contained in 122mm rockets. The size of the stockpile of those weapons is unclear.
During the 2011 conflict, government forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi used three different types of cluster munitions at various locations. Human Rights Watch witnessed government forces fire ground-launched MAT-120 mortar cluster munitions in Misrata in April 2011. In early 2012, clearance teams from the UK charity Mines Advisory Group and the UN found the remnants of an RBK-250 cluster bomb and about 30 PTAB-2.5M submunitions near the city of Ajdabiya, where Libyan government aircraft carried out airstrikes in March 2011. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Libya reported in 2012 that submunitions and 122mm cargo rockets used by the Libyan government were also found in the Nafusa Mountains near Jadu and Zintan.
There is no evidence of cluster munition use in Libya by countries involved in the NATO military action in 2011. NATO formally confirmed to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Libya that its forces did not use cluster munitions in the Libya operation. However, NATO airstrikes in 2011 on ammunition storage facilities created hazards when munitions stored by Libya, including cluster munitions, were ejected into the surrounding environment.
In March 2012, Human Rights Watch visited a storage depot in Mizdah, 160 kilometers south of Tripoli, which had been attacked more than 50 times by NATO between April and July 2011. Human Rights Watch found approximately 15 PTAB-2.5M bomblets and about three dozen submunitions of an unidentified type.
When the Gaddafi government was overthrown in 2011, anti-government forces and civilians gained access to weapons depots containing hundreds of thousands of landmines and other weapons, including cluster munitions. There has been no systematic or coordinated stockpile destruction effort by successive interim governments, or international actors.