Britain 'broke law with Kosovo cluster bombs'

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Britain's use of cluster bombs, which have killed more than 200 people since the end of the war in Kosovo, breached international law, says an anti-landmines organisation.

Britain's use of cluster bombs, which have killed more than 200 people since the end of the war in Kosovo, breached international law, says an anti-landmines organisation.

Although the weapons, which often leave unexploded "bomblets" lying around, do not breach the United Nations' ban on landmines, their use is indiscriminate and therefore illegal, the UK Working Group on Landmines says.

The umbrella group of 55 organisations says the Geneva Convention bans weapons that cause "superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering", and those not directed at a specific military target.

Because the 147 bomblets contained in a cluster bomb are scattered over a wide area and are often found some distance from their target, their use is indiscriminate, the group says. They cause unnecessary suffering because between 9 per cent and 30 per cent fail to explode immediately and so cause a danger to civilians.

Two British Gurkhas were killed by cluster-bombs during the clean-up operation after the Kosovo war, as were many local people.

A 13-year-old boy in Pristina Hospital, recovering after both legs were amputated, told researchers how he and his friends had picked up one of the bright yellow bombs, the size of a fizzy drinks can. "We began talking about taking the bomb to play with and then I just put it somewhere and it exploded," he said. "The boy near me died and I was thrown a metre in the air. The boy who died was 14 - he had his head cut off."

Other parts of the world are still suffering from late cluster-bomb detonations. In Laos, where the US dropped the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years during the Vietnam War, 500,000 tonnes of unexploded ordnance remain nearly 30 years later.

Richard Lloyd, director of the UK Working Group on Landmines, said there was plenty of evidence before the Kosovo conflict, particularly from the Gulf War, that the bombs were likely to be blown off course when dropped from high altitudes.

"Not only is there a strong chance that such bombs will fail to explode but, as there is no way of distinguishing between soldiers and civilians, such use is indiscriminate and in clear breach of international humanitarian law," he said.

The Ministry of Defence argued that cluster bombs were not covered by the Ottawa Convention against landmines because they are designed to detonate on impact. Their use was not specifically proscribed under any weapons convention, a spokesman said.

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