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Palestine | International

Unexploded cluster bombs prompt fear and fury in returning refugees
by UK Guardian (reposted)
Monday Aug 21st, 2006 6:50 AM
Four dead as mine-clearing teams fear death toll from Israeli weapons could soar
When the guns went silent in Aitta Shaab, a war-ravaged village close to the Israeli border, three children skipped through the rubble looking for a little fun.

Hurdling over lumps of crushed concrete and dodging spikes of twisted metal, Sukna, Hassan and Merwa, aged 10 to 12, paused before a curious object. Sukna picked it up. The terrifying blast flung her to the ground, thrusting metal shards into her liver. Hassan's abdomen was cut open. Merwa was hit in the leg and arm.

"We thought it was just a little ball," said Hassan with a hoarse whisper in the intensive care ward at Tyre's Jabal Amel hospital. In the next bed Sukna, a ventilator cupped to her mouth and a tangle of tubes from her arms, said even less.

Her mother watched anxiously. "The Israelis wanted to defeat Hizbullah," said Najah Saleh, 40. "But what did these children ever do to them?"

Israel may be pulling out of Lebanon but its soldiers leave behind a lethal legacy of this summer's 34-day war. The south is carpeted with unexploded cluster bombs, innocuous looking black canisters, barely larger than a torch battery, which pose a deadly threat to villagers stumbling back to their homes.

Mine-clearing teams scrambling across the region have logged 89 cluster bomb sites so far, and expect to find about 110 more. Meanwhile, casualties are being taken into hospital - four dead and 21 injured so far. Officials fear the toll could eventually stretch into the thousands.

"We already had a major landmine problem from previous Israeli invasions, but this is far worse," said Chris Clark of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre in Tyre, standing before a map filled with flags indicating bomb sites.

Cluster bombs are permitted under international law, but UN and human rights officials claim Israel violated provisions forbidding their use in urban areas. "We're finding them in orange plantations, on streets, in cars, near hospitals - pretty much everywhere," Mr Clark said.

The bombs are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that can kill within 10 metres (33ft). But up to a quarter fail to explode, creating minefields that kill civilians once the war is over. A decades-old campaign to ban them has failed.

Israel turned to cluster bombs in the last week of the war, apparently frustrated at the failure of conventional weapons to rout Hizbullah fighters from their foxholes. Mine-clearance teams are finding evidence pointing to their provenance: the US, the world's largest cluster bomb manufacturer, which gave Israel $2.2bn (£1.2bn) in military aid last year.