Cluster bombs on offer at arms fair despite sales ban

Cluster bombs are being offered for sale at an arms fair in London, The Independent has discovered, despite assurances by the organisers, that the weapon would not be marketed at the event.

Denel, the South African company, confirmed yesterday at the show being held at the Excel Centre in Docklands, that it made and supplied the cluster weapons.

Cluster submunitions are colourful, about the size of a soft-drinks can, and they often attract the attention of children. Unicef, the United Nations children's organisation, has reported that more than 1,000 children were injured by unexploded ordnance, including cluster bombs, after the official end of the Iraq war in 2003; 13,000 cluster bombs had been used by UK and US forces in Iraq that year.

Gyfford Fitchat, the executive manager for business development at Denel, said the company produced a 155 millimetre shell that disperses 42 bomblets in the air above the target. The artillery shell had a range of 25 miles, he said. "There are no restrictions on selling these, except that we need approval from our government. But I believe we would only export them to stable, mature sort of countries," Mr Fitchat said.

He saidthe weapon, which was not on display, was designed to work against tanks but he conceded it would also inflict injuries on any people in the target area. The bomblets rain down on an area of about 200 metres by 200 metres, he said.

The revelation will be a huge embarrassment for the Government, which helps organise the Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi) gathering that started yesterday. It will also be a blow to the British publisher Reed Elsevier, which puts on the biennial event, the world's biggest arms fair.

Cluster bombs are not illegal but their use has been condemned by humanitarian organisations, such as Human Rights Watch. The likelihood of casualties among civilians, due to their wide dispersal pattern and frequent inaccuracy, is high. Many of the bomblets fail to explode on reaching the ground, so they pose a continuing danger.

Mike Lewis, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, said bomblets worked in the same way as landmines, which have been outlawed under the Ottawa Convention. "The fact that a company is willing to offer a weapon [at DSEi] that is so destructive and internationally reviled is a reflection of how little arms companies are conscious of the humanitarian implications of their products," he said.

Officially the trade fair does not allow cluster bombs to be promoted at the event. Paul Beaver, spokesman for the DSEi, declared: "They [cluster bombs] are not here, not for sale and not even a topic of conversation." On being told that at least one company was willing to sell the weapons at the fair, he said: "I'm surprised you have found that, but you have to remember they are not illegal. There are far worse weapons, you know."

The taxpayer picks up a substantial bill for the event - for the policing, for the British armed forces personnel and warships made available for demonstrations, and for foreign delegations put up at the taxpayers' expense. A spokesman for the Ministry of Defence said action would be taken against any exhibitor selling illegal weapons, but added cluster munitions did not fall into this category.

Reed Elsevier - the owner of the DSEi exhibition - is also one of the world's foremost science publishers. Ahead of the event, one of its most prestigious medical titles, The Lancet, denounced Reed's connection with the arms trade. The journal said in an editorial that cluster bombs - "the worst kind of weapon" - would be represented at the fair. "Our owners are engaged in a business that so clearly undermines not only principles of public-health practice, but also the policies of intergovernmental agencies," The Lancet said in an editorial.

According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, more than a dozen makers of cluster bombs, including BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin are at DSEi. But only Denel was prepared to talk about the weapon at the event.

A cruel weapon

Many cluster bombs do not explode on impact. The small, brightly coloured bomblets lie like anti-personnel mines, tempting children. While considered an effective weapon by many Nato governments, the bombs are opposed by groups such as the Red Cross. They remain a daily danger in Laos and southern Vietnam, as well as Kosovo and Iraq. During the US's military campaign in Afghanistan, its forces faced a problem after humanitarian rations dropped from airplanes were found to have the same yellow coloured packaging as unexploded cluster bomblets.

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