(Sanaa) – Banned cluster munitions have wounded civilians including a child in attacks in Houthi-controlled territory in northern Yemen. Human Rights Watch visited the Saada governorate in northern Yemen, including one of the sites that had been attacked, on May 15 and 16, 2015.
“The Saudi-led coalition and other warring parties in Yemen need to recognize that using banned cluster munitions is harming civilians,” said Ole Solvang, senior emergencies researcher. “These weapons can’t distinguish military targets from civilians, and their unexploded submunitions threaten civilians, especially children, even long after the fighting.”
In one attack, which wounded three people, at least two of them most likely civilians, the cluster munitions were air-dropped, pointing to the Saudi-led coalition as responsible because it is the only party using aircraft. In a second attack, which wounded four civilians, including a child, Human Rights Watch was not able to conclusively determine responsibility because the cluster munitions were ground-fired, but the attack was on an area that has been under attack by the Saudi-led coalition.
In these and other documented cluster munition attacks, Human Rights Watch has identified the use of three types of cluster munitions in Yemen.
The 10-member coalition and other parties to the Yemeni conflict should make a public commitment never to use cluster munitions, Human Rights Watch said. Coalition supporters, including the United States, should denounce their use.
A local resident and medical staff told Human Rights Watch that four civilians, including a 10-year-old boy, were wounded on April 29 in Baqim, a village 10 kilometers from the Saudi border, when unexploded submunitions of a type previously undocumented in Yemen detonated after local residents picked them up. Based on photographs, Human Rights Watch identified the weapon as a type of ground-fired cluster munition containing “ZP-39” submunitions with a distinctive red ribbon. The ZP-39’s producer and the delivery system used are not publicly known or included in standard international reference materials. Neither Saudi nor Houthi forces are known to possess this type of weapon, but both sides have rocket launchers and tube artillery capable of delivering them.
The discovery of cluster munitions in Houthi-controlled territory that had been attacked by coalition aircraft on previous occasions and the location within range of Saudi artillery suggest that Saudi forces fired the cluster munitions, but further investigation is needed to conclusively determine responsibility, Human Rights Watch said.
Local residents and medical staff told Human Rights Watch that two or three people were wounded when air-dropped submunitions exploded on impact near al-Amar village, about 35 kilometers south of the northern Houthi stronghold of Saada, on April 27. One witness said that one of the wounded was a fighter while others, including medical staff in two hospitals, said that at least two of them were civilians.
The cluster munition used near al-Amar was the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon dropped by Saudi-led coalition aircraft. Human Rights Watch had previously documented this attack based on phone interviews and analysis of photographs. During the field investigation, Human Rights Watch examined the remnants of the weapon.
In addition, photographs and information from local residents indicate that Saudi-led coalition aircraft dropped a third type of cluster munition, bombs containing BLU-97 submunitions, in at least two attacks in Saada governorate on May 23. As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to establish, these attacks did not result in any immediate casualties, although unexploded submunitions have the potential to wound and kill if handled by persons in the future. Human Rights Watch documented the use of bombs containing BLU-97 submunitions during Saudi airstrikes on Houthi forces in 2009. Bombs containing BLU-97 submunitions were transferred by the United States to Saudi Arabia as part of arms sales announced in the early 1990s.
Human Rights Watch had also previously documented cluster munition use at al-Shaaf in Saqeen in the western part of Saada governorate on April 17. All documented cluster munition attacks have taken place in Saada governorate, the stronghold of the Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah.
Cluster munitions can be fired by rockets, mortars, and artillery or dropped by aircraft. Cluster munitions contain multiple submunitions designed to explode after spreading out over a wide area, often the size of a football field, putting anyone in the area at the time of the attack at risk of death or injury. In addition, many submunitions often do not explode, becoming de facto landmines.
Cluster munitions are prohibited under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which 116 countries have joined. Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the nine other countries such as the United Arab Emirates participating in the Saudi-led coalition are not party to the convention. They should promptly join the treaty and carry out its provisions, Human Rights Watch said.
On May 4 CNN reported that a Saudi military spokesman had acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had been using CBU-105 cluster munitions, and said that they had been used against armored vehicles.
Human Rights Watch has received information suggesting other possible incidents of cluster munitions use. A 47-year-old man from Marran in Saada governorate who was receiving treatment in al-Jumhouri Hospital in Saada City told Human Rights Watch that he had been wounded by a weapon that “first explodes in the air, and then explodes many times on the ground,” a description consistent with cluster munition use. Human Rights Watch was not able to investigate this and similar reports because of ongoing fighting in the affected areas.
“Increasing evidence of cluster munition use raises concerns not just for civilians now, but for when the fighting is over,” Solvang said. “Saudi Arabia and other warring parties in Yemen should publicly commit to never use this weapon and investigate alleged attacks.”
Human Rights Watch is a co-founder of Cluster Munition Coalition and serves as its chair.
Costa Rica condemned the use of cluster munitions in Yemen in a May 5 message issued in its capacity as president of the Convention on Cluster Munitions. The statement reminded all states parties of their 2010 Vientiane Declaration commitment to “raise their voices and publicly condemn the use of these unacceptable weapons."
Norway, the leader of the Oslo Process that created the Convention on Cluster Munitions, condemned the use of cluster munitions in Yemen in a May 11 statement by Foreign Minister Børge Brende that urged countries not to use cluster munitions and to join the international ban.
Cluster Munition Attack Near al-Amar, April 27
Human Rights Watch visited al-Amar, a village 30 kilometers south of the city of Saada. Based on an analysis of photographs and video, Human Rights Watch previously reported that the Saudi-led coalition had attacked the village in April with a type of cluster munition called CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons.
Ayid Muhammad Haydar, 37, a resident, told Human Rights Watch that he heard an airplane overhead around 11 a.m. on a Monday in late April, the village’s weekly market day. He said that the sky filled with about 40 parachutes. He did not hear any explosions in the air, but said that he heard about 15 small explosions that sounded like hand grenades over the next two hours. When he went to the area where he heard the explosions he found two cylindrical canisters, which he hid under some rocks:
Because of the market day, hundreds of people from the surrounding villages were in al-Amar when the bombs were dropped. When people saw the parachutes, they fled, leaving all their produce, cars, and livestock. I went to find out what the parachutes had dropped. I do not know what it is, but I thought it was important to keep away from children who might play with it.
Haydar told Human Rights Watch that he heard about 20 more small explosions the next day.
Haydar showed Human Rights Watch the two canisters and the location where he found them, near the main road between Sanaa and Saada, about 100 meters south of al-Amar. One canister was empty and one still contained a submunition. Human Rights Watch found a third empty canister in bushes nearby and residents showed Human Rights Watch a submunition that they had taken back to the village.
Human Rights Watch identified the items as BLU-108 canisters from the CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapon, which is manufactured by the Textron Systems Corporation and supplied to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates by the US in recent years. On May 4 CNN reported that a Saudi military spokesman had acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had been using CBU-105 cluster munitions, and said that they had been used against armored vehicles. A US military spokesman said that the US defense department was looking into the report and called upon all sides to “comply with international humanitarian law, including the obligation to take all feasible measures to minimize harm to civilians.”
Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine conclusively how many civilians were wounded in the attack. Haydar told Human Rights Watch that he had heard that the attack had wounded two people, one of them a fighter. Medical personnel at the al-Jumhouri hospital in Saada told Human Rights Watch that they had received three wounded people from this incident, all civilians and two of them with the same last name. An Ansar Allah member at al-Jumhouri hospital in Sanaa told Human Rights Watch that the two people with the same last name were transferred from the hospital in Saada to the burn section of the hospital in Sanaa and that they were civilian. Human Rights Watch was not able to locate and interview the wounded.
Human Rights Watch identified six small craters in the asphalt near the place where the canisters were found, which are consistent with craters created by the explosive submunitions that are released from BLU-108 canisters.
Al-Amar residents said that the closest military target is al-Safra military complex, housing the 72nd Military Brigade, about 2 to 3 kilometers away. Local residents told Human Rights Watch that coalition aircraft had carried out dozens of aerial attacks on April 27, apparently targeting the military complex.
According to a data sheet issued by the Textron Systems Corporation, the CBU-105 disperses 10 BLU-108 canisters that each subsequently release four submunitions that sense, classify, and engage a target such as an armored vehicle, and are equipped with self-destruct and self-deactivation features. The submunitions of the Sensor Fuzed Weapon explode above the ground and project an explosively formed jet of metal and fragmentation downward.
While the CBU-105 is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, its use is permitted under existing US policy because it meets the criteria established for submunition reliability and its export is permitted under existing US export restrictions on cluster munitions. However, under the policy the country receiving must agree that cluster munitions “will only be used against clearly defined military targets and will not be used where civilians are known to be present or in areas normally inhabited by civilians.” It appears that the attacks using CBU-105 Sensor Fuzed Weapons occurred near populated areas in Yemen.
Cluster Munition Attack Near Baqim, April 29
Adnan Qassim Ali Qaflah, 29, a local resident, told Human Rights Watch that he saw an attack with an unfamiliar weapon on an area one kilometer south of Baqim: “One bomb was falling and then split into smaller bombs.” He said that villagers found small unexploded bombs near the road the next day, but when they picked them up, one exploded, injuring four people from the village. Qaflah, who was not at the scene, heard from others that the small bombs were about the size of a fist and that they had a red “loop” attached to them. He later saw the small bombs from about 50 meters away when local Houthi security forces piled them up for destruction.
Qaflah said that the same type of weapon was used in an attack on a different area near the town a few days later, but that the residents by then knew that they were dangerous and that nobody touched them until security forces came to destroy them.
A nurse at al-Jumhouri hospital in Saada City told Human Rights Watch that on April 29 four injured people, three men and one 10-year-old boy, had arrived at the hospital. The nurse said he remembered the patients because they told him that they had been wounded when “bombs that looked like toys” exploded when they picked them up from the ground. The explosion had wounded the child in the stomach, he said. One adult had several wounds, including to his face, the back of his thigh, his penis, and the side of his torso, he said. Human Rights Watch was provided the names and ages of the four injured people, and photos and a short video of the wounded child. Three of the wounded, including the child, had the same last name, indicating that they were family members.
A member of a Houthi civil affairs committee in Saada City provided Human Rights Watch with five photographs that a friend from Baqim had given him. One photograph shows five small cylindrical explosive submunitions with bright red ribbons attached to one end. Two photographs show single submunitions, and two photographs show what appear to be blood stains on the ground. The filename and metadata embedded in the photographs indicate that they were taken on April 29.
Human Rights Watch identified the explosive submunitions in the photograph as a type of dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM). A DPICM submunition is designed to create an anti-material effect, through an explosively formed shaped-charge, and an antipersonnel effect through pre-formed fragments. These submunitions are “spin-armed” and rely on the physical forces from a ground fired artillery projectile or rocket to function properly. Delivery by aircraft would not provide sufficient spin to arm a DPICM submunition.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify the exact model, producer, or delivery method, but has documented that Islamic State forces (also known as ISIS) fired the same weapon, whose submunition was marked “ZP-39,” in northern Syria in September 2014.
The area where the cluster munitions were found is under Houthi control. Saudi forces control the Saudi side of the border. Given the potential range of possible delivery systems, only Houthi or Saudi forces could have fired them. Both Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces have rocket launchers and tube artillery capable of delivering this type of weapon, but neither side is publicly known to possess this exact type of submunition. While the evidence available suggests that the Saudi’s fired the cluster munitions, the Houthis could have fired a weapon that malfunctioned and landed in their own territory, preventing Human Rights Watch from conclusively establishing responsibility for the attack.
Ongoing attacks from both sides prevented Human Rights Watch from visiting Baqim and the lack of cell-phone network prevented further interview by phone.
Cluster Munition Attack in al-Maqash and al-Nushoor districts, May 23
Photographs and interviews with two local residents indicate that coalition aircraft dropped cluster munitions on at least two locations on May 23.
Abd al-Rahman Ghanem Mansour, 35, the head of al-Sabra municipality, told Human Rights Watch that coalition aircraft attacked al-Nushoor district, about 16 kilometers from Saada City, four times in the early morning on May 23. His description of some of the bombs is consistent with cluster munition use:
A couple of the bombs exploded in the air and then branched into hundreds of small bombs. Some of the bombs exploded when they hit the ground, sending smoke and shrapnel up to 500 meters away. Some of the bombs did not explode, however.
Abu Muawad, 45, a resident in al-Maqash district, gave Human Rights Watch a similar account of an attack about 1.5 kilometers from his house, also in the morning on May 23.
Abdulbasit al-Sharafi, a correspondent with al-Masirah TV in Sadaa who visited both impact sites, told Human Rights Watch that the bombs that fell in al-Maqash district fell on a village with about 20 houses, partially damaging some of them. He described some of the bombs being yellow and the size of water bottles. He said that local residents had told him that some of the bombs produced white smoke while others burned and created holes in the asphalt.
All three witnesses said that the attacks had not resulted in any casualties.
Based on photographs from al-Sharafi and a video posted online, Human Rights Watch identified the weapon as BLU-97 submunitions.
The BLU-97 submunition, 202 of which are contained in each bomb, is a widely-used and known to be unreliable submunition, which, for example, had dud rates of at least 5 to 7 percent reported after use in the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan. First produced in 1984, the US used a total of 10,035 bombs containing more than 2 million BLU-97 submunitions during the 1991 Persian Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait. The BLU-97 submunition contains several fuze systems making it quite sensitive to movement and apt to detonate when disturbed.