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Southern Lebanon littered with war’s leftovers

Deadly black cylinders about the size of large household batteries fill the streets of shattered villages in southern Lebanon from before a cease-fire with Israel was enforced.
/ Source: Reuters

More than 100 deadly black cylinders, not much bigger than large household batteries, litter the main road of this shattered village.

They are unexploded cluster bombs fired by Israel in the last days of its war with Hezbollah guerrillas.

At least a dozen of them lie near the entrance of Tebnin’s only hospital, a shrapnel-sprayed building hit during an Israeli bombardment that wounded 15 people, according to its administrator.

“Dangerous? This is a village filled with hundreds of unexploded bombs,” said Frank Masche, technical field manager of the Mines Advisory Group, a U.N.-backed unit cleaning up the lethal leftovers of the five-week war.

“These things are tiny, really hard to see, and very sensitive. You just accidentally kick one and it will go off.”

Cars of refugees returning to their homes honk and swerve through the street, brakes screeching as they lurch within inches of tape marking the bombs.

UXO causing deaths after truce
Unexploded ordinance, also known as UXO, have killed at least four people and injured at least eight since a U.N.-backed truce halted fighting between Israel and Hezbollah on Monday.

Jawad Najam, a doctor at a private hospital in nearby Tyre, said his staff had treated 25 people for cluster bomb injuries in 24 hours. He described the bombs as looking “like toys.”

Designed to puncture tank armor and spray molten shrapnel inside to kill the crew, cluster bombs are released above their targets by jets or artillery, said Tekimiti Gilbert, operations chief for the U.N. Mine Action Coordination Centre in Lebanon.

As they fall, a ribbon on the firing pin twists in the air to arm it but if they do not strike their target just right, they do not detonate.

Gilbert said that happened around 10 percent of the time.

“So they’re just lying there, waiting for someone to come and trip the mechanism,” he said, standing over a bomb in the centre of the road. “When one goes off, anything within 15 meters (47 feet) is going to be dead.”

The U.N. estimates Israel fired 2,600 artillery rounds, missiles and bombs into Lebanon each day of the five-week war, which killed more than 1,100 people in Lebanon and 157 Israelis.

If 10 percent remains unexploded, that means there could be around 8-9,000 deadly ordnance waiting to go off, Gilbert said.

“I just got back this morning. There were three little bombs in here, so I threw them out,” said Hussein Ali Hammud, a bookshop owner, after he and his family returned to their battered house in Tebnin. “Now they tell me that was a mistake.”

U.S. rights group Human Rights Watch has urged the United States not to send cluster munitions to Israel, saying their use in civilian-populated areas violates international law.

The Jewish state, which blames Hezbollah for starting the war by kidnapping two of its soldiers in a bloody July 12 raid, says it uses the weapons legally.

Streets in ruin
In Bint Jbeil, scene of some of the heaviest fighting, many unexploded 500-pound bombs — each over three feet long — and other shells lie in the shattered concrete, metal and scalded earth that was once the main market street.

Hezbollah workers guide heavy machinery among the cluster bombs, here resembling small gray potatoes, as they move slabs of concrete to reach bodies under the rubble.

The larger munitions can be handled and even driven to a remote location for detonation but the hidden ones, especially the cluster bombs, often go unseen until it is too late.

“Using cluster bombs in civilian areas goes against the rules of warfare,” said Gilbert.

“They need to be banned. They are so indiscriminate and have such a high failure rate, they cause huge problems when the fighting stops.”