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Cluster bombs: The biggest threat to civilians

Weeks after the cease-fire, civilians still face a huge threat: Cluster bombs, which litter the streets of Lebanon.
/ Source: NBC News

It was one of those freaky situations that can arise after the fighting has stopped in a battlezone. In Saddiqine, in South Lebanon, we ran into a team of bomb-disposal experts called Mines Advisory Group. They were hired by the overburdened U.N. to find and destroy as much unexploded ordnance as possible, before returning Lebanese families tried to dispose of it themselves. When I asked Frederic Gras, a French volunteer with MAG, what the biggest threat is to civilians, he didn't hesitate.

''Cluster bombs, without a doubt," he said. ''You find them everywhere. They go through walls, come into a house. You have to check all the roofs, every structure.'' Then Gras showed me his bizarre — and frightening — catch of the day. At least a dozen small cluster "bomblets," each looking like a large steel bullet, or a kid's plaything, rolled around the bottom of a blue food basket as he pulled one out to show me.

''A child will find one of these, play with it, it explodes and will kill people within a 40 yard range. It's deadly,'' he warned.

I asked the obvious question. 'But are those safe?'' Yes, Gras replied, ''The trigger is taped down, but the thousands still out there, somewhere, are going to kill.''

The South, today, is virtually littered with tons of 'live' shells, bombs, and mines, mostly Israeli — but there are plenty of Hezbollah munitions, too. U.N. sources tell us that in the final two weeks before the truce, Israel fired up to 6,000 rounds of shells and bombs every day, which included, in all, thousands of cluster bombs, both American and Israeli-made. The cluster bomb, used as early as the Vietnam War, is desiged to explode about 1000 feet above ground, and spread dozens — sometimes hundreds — of the bomblets Gras and other MAG teams are finding in the houses, gardens and on the rooftops of Saddiqine and at least 170 other South Lebanese towns and villages. The bomblets' military purpose is to destroy enemy vehicles and personnel. But since the cease-fire, at least a dozen Lebanese civilians have been killed and more than 70 wounded by 'hot' ordnance. And, usually, it's by cluster bombs.

Ruined by cluster bombs, not Hezbollah
Kassim Balhas returned to his shell-shattered home in Saddiqine several days ago. It was to be his dream house, built with his own money, to share with wife Leila and 8-month-old daughter, Nancy. But there is little more to salvage than an odd pot or pan.

''Hezbollah isn't even here, they are on the border. This is just a residential area, a town like any other,'' Kassim explained. Then, pointing to the charred remains of what was his garden — and where he removed 3 cluster bombs that morning — he added, ''When the Israelis hit us like this, it only drives us closer to Hezbollah, not further away.''

The use of cluster bombs has always been controversial, and even more so in an age of assymetrical warfare, where all the 'green lines' are blurred and the battlefields are cities, towns and villages. This week, the U.S. State Department confirmed that it had launched an investigation into whether Isreal violated any ''secret agreements'' between it and Washington about the deployment of U.S.-made cluster bombs in civilian areas. The Israeli Defense Forces and Foreign Ministry were quick to respond, saying that ''all weapons used by the IDF are legal under international law and their use conforms with international standards.'' Most Israeli military analysts, like Dan Shifton, would agree, blaming the Hezbollah practice of hiding inside residential blocks, and behind human shields.

No military-civilian distinction
''You are attacking a military target,'' Shifton insisted. ''All Hezbollah military targets were situated purposefully in civilian areas, so the cluster bombs were used against Hizbollah rockets. I don't see any problem with that.''

But the problem, explain groups like Human Rights Watch, is that those cluster bombs now hang from trees, eaves, and refrigerator doors, and lurk under rubble. This in areas where, 10 days into the cease-fire, there was no sign of Hezbollah military life or materiel at all. Only homes, shops, hospitals, mosques, churches, and thousands of Lebanese families too frightened by cluster bombs to leave the balconies of their damaged homes.

''When you use cluster bombs the same way as Hezbollah uses katyusha rockets on cities in northern Israel," explained Human Rights Watch-Lebanon's Nadim Houry, ''You are failing to distinguish between civilians and the military and that's a violation of the Geneva conventions.''

It's a race against death and injury for first response groups like MAG. They don't have enough teams, or time, they say, to get the job done. ''The environment is full of scrap metal and rubbish'', said MAG field manager Frank Masche, ''so the search for these plastic munitions alone will take months if not years, and then we can go back to mine clearance again.''

Mines, shells, bombs, cluster bomblets: It's a frightening cocktail and a legacy of war that will menace these people — perhaps — for decades. Just do the math: based on UN estimates, at least 25,000 deadly bomblets - those curious-looking, lethal, toy-like projectiles - are still out there, somewhere, just waiting to kill, or maim.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London who has covered Lebanon since 1982.