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Cluster bombs litter Georgia’s fields despite Russian denials

By Shorena Labadze
Friday, August 22
Human Rights Watch held a press conference on August 21 which outlined instances of unexploded ordnance left by Russian attacks on Georgian land.

Human Rights Watch researchers have documented Russian cluster bomb attacks during the conflict in Georgia, refuting Russia’s earlier denials that it had used the weapon. They have seen and photographed unexploded sub-bombs detached from the central bomb clusters in and around the villages of Shindisi, in the Gori district of Georgia. Residents from Shindisi and the nearby Pkhvenisi village told Human Rights Watch researchers that there are hundreds of unexploded sub-bombs in the area. Human Rights Watch researchers have seen for themselves unexploded dual purpose (anti-armour and anti-personnel) sub-bombs in Shindisi, commonly known as Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munition (DPICM) sub-bombs. Sub-bomb “duds” are highly dangerous and can explode if picked up or otherwise disturbed.

“Many people have died because of Russia’s use of cluster bombs in Georgia, even while Moscow was denying it had used this barbaric weapon,” said Marc Garlasco, Senior Military Analyst at Human Rights Watch. “Many more people could be killed or wounded unless Russia allows professional de-mining organizations to enter at once to clear the affected areas,” he added. “Highly dangerous unexploded bomblets now litter farms, roads, and pathways in Shindisi and Pkhvenisi. People remaining in these areas don’t realize the dangers these submunitions pose and are at serious risk of injury or death if they handle, or even approach, the bomblets.”

According to Human Rights Watch, witnesses told them that on August 8, 2008, Russian air strikes on Georgian armoured units located near Shindisi and Pkhvenisi were followed by extensive cluster bomb strikes that killed at least one civilian and injured another in Shindisi. At least two more civilians were killed and five wounded in the days following the initial strikes.

Zviad Geladze, 38, showed Human Rights Watch researchers fields contaminated with sub-bombs. He estimated they covered an area extending at least one kilometer through his farm. The fields are full of produce ready to harvest. Because humanitarian agencies continue to be unable to access much of Gori region, fields like Geladze’s may provide residents of the region with their only food source.

Zura Tatrishvili, 62, showed the researchers an unexploded submunition that he had picked up without realizing that just touching it could make it explode. “It was only when one of the bombs exploded after a soldier threw it that we understood that they were dangerous,” he said. Even now, Tatrishvili continues to keep his livestock in a pen with unexploded sub-bombs in it, demonstrating the need for clearance as well as education.

During the attack on August 8 in Shindisi, Vano Gogidze, 45, was killed and his relative, Dato Gogidze, 39, was injured. Also in Shindisi, Ramaz Arabashvili, 40, was killed and four people were wounded when a submunition that they had gathered from a field exploded on August 10. On August 18, in Pkhvenisi, Veliko Bedianashvili, 70, died when a sub-bomb exploded in his hand. “There are so many of these lying around. The fields are full of them,” said his son, Durmishkhan Bedianashvili.

Human Rights Watch called upon Russia to immediately stop using cluster bombs, weapons so dangerous to civilians that more than 100 nations have agreed to ban their use. Human Rights Watch also called on Russia to provide precise strike data on its cluster attacks in order to facilitate the cleanup of areas contaminated by sub-bombs. Human Rights Watch called on Georgia to undertake an immediate risk education programme for its population, including radio and television announcements about the dangers of sub-bombs.

Cluster bombs contain dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions or bomblets and cause unacceptable humanitarian harm in two ways. First, their broad-area effect kills and injures civilians indiscriminately during strikes. Second, many submunitions don’t explode, becoming de facto landmines that cause civilian casualties for months or years to come.

Under international humanitarian law indiscriminate attacks, including attacks in populated areas with weapons that cannot be targeted solely at military targets, are prohibited. Russia has an obligation not only to cease all such attacks, but also to take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of the civilian population in areas over which it exercises effective control. On August 20, the Shindisi and Pkhvenisi areas remained under Russian control.

Human Rights Watch also called on Georgia, which is known to have cluster munitions in its stockpiles, to join the international move to ban their use and to publicly undertake not to use such weapons in this conflict. Neither Russia nor Georgia was part of the Oslo Process launched in February 2007 to develop a new international treaty banning cluster bombs, which comprehensibly bans the use, production, trade and stockpiling of the weapons. It will be open for signature in Oslo on December 3.

Human Rights Watch first reported on Russian use of cluster bombs in Georgia on August 15, after it identified strikes on Gori and Ruisi on August 12 that killed at least 11 civilians and injured dozens more. Russia subsequently denied any use of cluster bombs. General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, Deputy Head of the Russian General Staff, stated on August 15 that, “We did not use cluster bombs, and what’s more, there was absolutely no necessity to do so.” Georgia’s Internal Affairs Ministry spokesperson Shota Utiashvili has made an announcement asking media representatives to air information about, and pictures of, the sub-bombs to warn the population of the danger of them.