US may ban sale of cluster bombs to Israel

The discovery of hundreds of US-made cluster bombs among the tens of thousands of unexploded munitions carpeting the south of Lebanon, has led to calls on Washington to impose a moratorium on sales of the weapons to Israel.

Bomb disposal experts are working around the clock to clear the lethal leftovers after Israel fired 1.2 million bomblets in the last three days of the war. The pods containing the 650 bomblets, which burst apart at a pre-determined height, have a failure rate of up to 30 per cent, leaving clear evidence of their American origin.

The US State Department is investigating Israel's use of American-made cluster bombs during the war in Lebanon. In particular, whether or not Israel broke a secret agreement with the United States not to use cluster bombs against civilians.

The Israelis make no attempt to hide where they obtained this weapon. In the garden of a house in Nabatiyeh used as a headquarters by the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG) lies a cluster-bomb container that sprayed bomblets over an area the size of a football pitch. Such weapons are still causing casualties.

When we visitedthe town a man had just been taken to hospital with severe injuries after a bomblet exploded in his hand.

The bomb was the size of a small torpedo. There are letters scrawled in Hebrew on the metal but most of the writing is in English; it says CBU [Cluster Bomb Unit] - 58B and "US Air Force". The manufacturer is identified as Lanson Industries. There are a number of cryptic code numbers reading "Part No 7127151/22290" and "FSN 1325-758-0417" and contract no F42600-72-2676. The bomb was made before the Vietnam War had ended, because there is a marking showing that its warranty ended on 7 February 1974. There is no indication of when the cluster bomb was transferred from the US to Israel.

Nick Guest, a former British Army bomb disposal officer working for MAG, says the most common bomblets - the M42 and the M77 - are of American manufacture. Some of the bombs are round like a metallic orange and others are like a can of fruit juice. They are small enough to be difficult to detect and may go on killing children and farmers for years.

The unexploded bomblets become anti-personel mines. Mr Guest says MAG has teams working in the banana groves on the coastal plain around Tyre and says that even for experts the mines are difficult to find because they may have "fallen into heart of the banana tree where their presence is concealed". In hill villages people are about to start harvesting their olive trees though they know branches and leaves may contain bomblets invisible to anybody from the ground. Another problem is that the Israelis may have fired cluster bombs into a village and then used conventional artillery to blow up houses. Families searching the ruins may accidentally detonate a bomblet.

The early date of the US bomb container in Nabatiyeh reveals another problem. The expiry of the warranty more than 30 years ago suggests that the manufacturer expected some deterioration in the product. Mr Guest points out that more recent cluster bombs have a self-destruct mechanism that operates after a period of time. But those dating from 1974 do not and therefore become sensitive anti-personnel mines.

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