updated 9/1/2006 9:47:28 AM ET 2006-09-01T13:47:28

The fighting stopped two weeks ago, but it’s still too dangerous for Abdullah Ziaeddine to move back into his war-blasted home, much less start to rebuild.

Like hundreds of fields, houses and roads across Lebanon, his yard is littered with unexploded bomblets from an Israeli cluster bomb attack that spewed the small and deadly metal canisters. One step in the wrong place risks injury, loss of a limb — or death.

The fist-sized bomblets, leftovers from the Israeli military fight with Hezbollah guerrillas, have killed 13 people and wounded 48 in Lebanon since the Aug. 14 truce, said Dalya Farran, spokeswoman for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Center here.

Jan Egeland, the U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, drew attention to the issue Wednesday when he called Israel’s use of the weapons cruel.

“What’s shocking and I would say, to me, completely immoral is that 90 percent of the cluster bomb strikes occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict, when we knew there would be a resolution,” Egeland said.

Technically legal
Israel said it used its weapons legally. During the 34-day war, Israel used cluster bombs to attack Hezbollah fighters who often took up positions in village streets and residential neighborhoods in southern Lebanon to launch rockets at Israel.

“Israel does not break any international laws in the type of armaments it uses,” government spokeswoman Miri Eisin said Thursday. “Their use conforms with international standards.”

No international treaties or laws specifically forbid the use of cluster bombs, but the Geneva Conventions outline rules to protect civilians during conflict. Because cluster bombs often maim civilians after fighting ends, their use by Israel against targets in Lebanese cities and towns has been criticized by human rights groups.

The U.S. State Department’s Office of Defense Trade Controls is investigating whether Israel inappropriately used U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas during the conflict, which began after Hezbollah guerrillas raided an Israeli army outpost July 12 and captured two soldiers.

More than 400 cluster bomb sites have been found so far in Lebanon, and survey teams are finding dozens more every day, Farran said. The bomblets — small metallic spheres or black and gray cylinders — are about as big and powerful as a grenade.

“I don’t walk around here anymore,” Ziaeddine said, pointing to a half dozen bomblets that failed to explode on impact, lying atop dirt in his yard. Bomblets that did work tore at least a dozen small holes through Ziaeddine’s roof and the walls of a villa.

Clean-up could take months
The 36-year-old businessman is staying at a relative’s home on the edge of town with his wife and 2-year-old son, waiting for a bomb squad to sweep his property — something that could take weeks or months.

The United Nations estimates around 250,000 people cannot move back to their homes because they were either leveled during fighting or because missile warheads, artillery shells and cluster bomblets sit unexploded around them.

When the bombs started to fall on Yuhmour, a Shiite village in foothills about 10 miles from the Israeli border, most of the residents fled. It was not clear if Hezbollah fighters used the village as a base during the fighting, but the vast majority of Shiites in Lebanon support the guerrilla fighters.

In a classic battle between two armies, cluster bombs are designed to destroy or slow enemy forces by spreading a blanket of explosives across an area the size of one or two football fields. Fired by howitzers or dropped from aircraft, the bombs release hundreds of smaller bomblets in mid-air that are supposed to explode upon impact.

Farran said 10 percent typically fail to detonate, but at some sites in Lebanon demining teams have estimated failure rates as high as 70 percent.

The United Nations has identified 405 bomb strike areas contaminated with up to 100,000 unexploded bomblets.

Along the main street in Yuhmour, red and white tape seals off parts of yards and abandoned houses where unexploded bomblets were found. Red arrows spray-painted on piles of rubble point to more bomblets lying in debris. Others are unmarked and residents, suspecting more nearby, keep far away.

One woman sat in the collapsed ruins of her single-story home, confined to a small path because bomblets had been found everywhere else.

In Yuhmour this week, teams from the Mines Advisory Group, a British non-governmental group that clears land mines, blocked traffic as ordnance disposal experts deliberately blew up more than 50 bomblets one by one, shaking the village. Lebanese soldiers are also working in other areas to defuse or destroy them.

'They’re not doing enough'
For many, the disposal process is too slow.

“They’re not doing enough, fast enough,” said Chirine Mehdi, a 33-year-old mother of two who has warned her children to stay indoors or on main roads when outside. “The war is over. Why do we have to keep living in fear?”

Farran said there aren’t enough disposal teams.

Unexploded artillery shells and missile warheads also litter yards and streets, but the U.N. and the Lebanese army have shifted their focus to cluster bomblets, which are considered more of a threat because they’re far more numerous, harder to spot and appear innocuous, Farran said.

In the southeastern border village of Blida on Saturday, 11-year-old Ali Hussein Hassan picked up a bomblet he thought was an old perfume container. It exploded, wounding him and three other children, said his mother, Fatima Hussein Hassan.

At a hospital in Nabatiyeh where the four were taken, one of the boys lay on a bed with tubes streaming vital fluids into his stomach. The 6-year-old, wincing in pain whenever he moved, had been struck by 50 tiny bits of shrapnel and a larger fragment that ripped through his intestines, family members said.

“What did these children do to anybody? They’re innocent,” said Fatima, standing beside her bedridden son whose right leg was broken when he was thrown back by the blast. “We survived the war, but we are still being attacked.”

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