Thursday, October 04, 2007

Momentum building for cluster bomb ban - activists

BELGRADE, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Momentum is building for a long-overdue ban on cluster bombs that kill or maim thousands every year around the world long after wars have ended, activists said on Wednesday.

"We are convinced we will have very strong support for the treaty banning cluster munitions in 2008," said Steve Goose, director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch, one of the groups meeting at a conference in the Serb capital Belgrade.

Even though the main producers and users of cluster munitions, such as the United States, are not part of the process, the general move for a ban would still "have a powerful effect", he said.

Cluster bombs, in use for six decades, are one of the most controversial weapons of modern warfare. Dropped from planes or fired by mortars, containers of up to 250 bomblets burst open and fall over an area the size of four city blocks.

Most explode immediately, but others -- up to 10 percent by some estimates -- can be triggered years later, by touch, motion or even static electricity from someone's clothes.

Known as "area munitions", cluster bombs are seen by armies as a way of making sure the enemy has little chance of surviving if out in the open. But like landmines and booby-traps, they are condemned as indiscriminate weapons.

The Soviets first used them in World War Two against Nazi tanks. They were used in Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo, Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, and most recently Lebanon.

In February this year, a Norwegian initiative known as the Oslo Process called for cluster bombs to be banned by 2008.

Some 80 states pledged their support, but big arms producers such as the United States and Russia did not participate.

"The new treaty will have a powerful effect even on those who do not sign right away," Goose said.

"We've seen it with the landmine treaty, where even governments who decided not to join are largely abiding by the provisions. They don't want to risk public condemnation. We think this will happen with cluster munitions as well."

The bomblets come in many shapes and sizes, but mostly look like cans in brown, grey or yellow, often attracting children. The force of the blast is enough to maim and kill.


The Balkans is the worst affected region in Europe.

The former Yugoslav countries will need at least another decade to clear areas affected by cluster bombs -- some locally produced -- during the 1990s wars in Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo.

Serbia estimates some 350,000 cluster bomblets were dropped on its territory during the 1999 NATO bombing war to force Serb troops out of Kosovo. A further 235,000 were dropped on Kosovo and its mountainous border with Albania.

Across the region, civilians are wounded or killed every year while ploughing fields or collecting wood in forests.

"Serbia will need at least 15 years and 20 million euros to clear its territory from the cluster bombs dropped by NATO," said Petar Mihajlovic, director of Serbia's Action Mine Centre.

But progress is slow, and donations drying up.

Bosnia, one of the world's most heavily mined regions since the 1992-95 war, struggles with funding, and its plan of being landmine-free by 2010 is derailed by bureaucracy and poverty.

Branislav Kapetanovic, a former deminer in the Serbian army, spoke at the conference to highlight the plight of victims.

"I lost both my arms and legs and can neither see nor hear well," Kapetanovic said, navigating his wheelchair through a crowd of survivors.

He was injured in November 2000 while clearing an airport field and was in and out of hospital for years.

"But, I am an optimist, a great optimist, that cluster bombs will be banned soon and the victims will get help," he said.

Reuters AlertNet - Momentum building for cluster bomb ban - activists