(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Agencies and others tackle cluster bomb threat

[Lebanon] The Mines Advisory Group detonates 47 cluster bombs in Al-Malkiyye, south Lebanon. [Date picture taken: 09/01/2006]
Serene Assir/IRIN

Mine-clearing agencies are removing thousands of unexploded bombs in Lebanon, particularly in the south of the country.

Thousands of people displaced during the recent conflict between Israel and mostly Lebanese Hezbollah militants, have returned to southern Lebanon to find their homes, gardens, roads, orchards and even trees, peppered with seemingly innocuous canisters that turn out to be cluster bombs.

The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) has identified 435 sites contaminated with cluster bombs, but has yet to check open spaces such as fields and valleys, as clearing civilian infrastructure is their priority.

According to Tekimiti Gilbert, MACC’s chief of operations in Tyre, emergency clearance work is expected to take about six months, though clearing cluster bombs completely, will take another year at least. "It all depends on funding," he said.

Cluster bomb clearance is painstaking. Trained teams identify signs of contamination, assess the extent of it and clear areas as quickly as possible.

"When we came back, every single part of our house was contaminated with cluster bombs. Even our swimming pool was filled with them," said Zainab Bashoon Shoghri, a resident of Al-Malkiyye, near the port city of Tyre.

Cluster bombs are one of the more common forms of unexploded ordnance, or UXOs. UXOs are bombs, shells and grenades which did not explode when they were fired and still pose a risk of detonation.

"All it takes for a cluster bomblet to go off is a kick, a push, a footstep," said Frank Masche, a team supervisor with the non-governmental British Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which is working under MACC.

Cluster bombs are small metallic canisters, about the size of a large torch battery. Typically, these bomblets are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that can kill anyone within 10 metres of where they land.

Also typically, up to a quarter of these bomblets fail to explode immediately.

'100,000’ bomblets waiting to explode

The UN Humanitarian Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that up to 100,000 unexploded cluster bombs are scattered throughout areas of southern Lebanon.

Specialists say a single shell or rocket fired from a tank or plane, releases anywhere between 88 and 640 bomblets.

"It may be the case that more than one strike has taken place in each site," said Dalia Farran, MACC’s media and post-clearance officer.

Two different kinds of teams are currently operating in Lebanon: explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams and battle area clearance (BAC) teams, according to Farran.

"EOD teams only remove what they see," she explained. "BAC teams carry out a longer, more focused process. It'll be a long while before BAC teams have finished their work here, given the extent of contamination."

Working with the British charity MAG and the UN’s co-ordination MACC teams, are Lebanese Army’s National Demining Office, the Swedish Rescue Service Agency and Bactec, a contracted firm. Hezbollah, the militia Israel fought in southern Lebanon for four weeks in July and August, is said to be doing bomb clearance work too.

On any given day, a MACC-coordinated clearance team detonates between 50 and 100 bomblets. "Our best so far has been 154 on a single day," said Masche. By 4 September, their teams had detonated some 3,940 cluster bombs.

Once a cluster bomb site has been identified, the normal procedure is for the demining team to assess whether it is safe to move individual bomblets to a designated safe area nearby for detonation, or detonate them where they are. "We have sometimes had to detonate bomblets in situ when it has been deemed too risky [to move them]," Masche explained.

A team supervisor picks up and carries away bomblets intended for detonation, Masche added, warning that specialist knowledge is required for the safe handling of cluster bombs.

Almost unbelievably though, many civilians in southern Lebanon do try to clear away cluster bombs themselves.

"My father has gone out into the fields to identify and move cluster bomblets away from the crops," said Wafi Abdullah, a farm owner in Ras Al-Ain, near Tyre. "He knows he might die, but he is worried for the crops that have survived the war as they are not being watered."

Twelve people have been killed by cluster bombs, and 61 injured, since UN Security Council Resolution 1701 brought the conflict to an end on 14 August.

SA/ED/CB

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