DEIR QANOUN/AAYTA SHAAB - Unexploded ordnance in southern Lebanon continue to pose great risks to civilians returning to their villages, according to the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (UNMACC). It estimates that there are at least one million unexploded cluster bomblets in the area.
“The latest estimate includes the number of rocket and artillery cluster bomblets,” said Dalya Farran, UNMACC media and post-clearance officer, adding that cluster bombshells dropped from Israeli aircraft had yet to be counted.
Cluster bombs or bomblets 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 which still pose a risk of detonation.
About a quarter of all cluster bombs, which are small metallic canisters about the size of a large torch battery, fail to explode immediately. UNMACC estimates that the failure rate for Israel’s cluster bombs is closer to 40 percent.
Teams coordinated by UNMACC in southern Lebanon have located scores of cluster bomb strike areas in recent days, bringing the total number of such areas on 21 September to 578. “Each site has been struck by at least one cluster bomb shell, but often more than once,” said Farran.
So far, only about 20,000 cluster bomblets have been cleared, she added. Should funding and clearance teams continue to be available at the current rate, UNMACC estimates that it will take between 12 and 15 months for teams working under its supervision and coordination to clear southern Lebanon.
Every day, new strike locations are being discovered in a painstaking assessment and clearance process. Priority areas for assessment and clearance are civilian infrastructure, including homes, schools, roads and gardens, UNMACC said.
Threat to children
Most vulnerable to the threat are children, who are more likely than adults to go into fields and open valleys, where exhaustive assessment has yet to take place, said Farran.
Hussein Thine, 10, survived an explosion two days after the cessation of hostilities was implemented because his father was able to quickly seek medical attention for him in Tyre, 25 km north of his village Aayta Shaab (105 km south of Beirut).
“My cousin and I were playing when she found a cluster bomb,” Hussein said. “She dropped it by my feet and it exploded. All my insides came out. It was horrible. Her legs were also wounded, but she is ok now,” he added, showing scars from surgery across his abdomen.
“Before the war, we used to love going out into the fields. Now I am the one who warns my friends. Instead, we play on the main roads,” Hussein said.
With the onset of winter, clearance will become ever more difficult as rain will cause submunitions such as cluster bombs to sink into the earth, said UNMACC community liaison officer Ali Fakhouri.
“Communities in the south had enough troubles because of the war and the death and destruction it caused. Now the cluster bombs will make things even harder for them,” Fakhouri said.
Since the United Nations brokered a cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah on 14 August, ending 34 days of war, there have been 104 casualties of cluster bomb explosions, including at least 14 killed, according to UNMACC.
Residents of southern Lebanon are not unaccustomed to the threat of UXOs. Prior to its withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel left some 500,000 landmines. However, experts agree that the new problem of cluster bombs is much greater than that ever posed by landmines.
The UN Development Programme (UNDP) said in a recent report that in the first four weeks following the end of the recent conflict, the number of casualties from cluster bombs detonating exceeded the number of UXO casualties in southern Lebanon from 2003 to 2005 inclusive.
Israel has been under fire for its heavy use of cluster bombs in southern Lebanon, particularly because 90 percent of its cluster bomb shells were launched during the last 72 hours of the war, when an impending cessation of hostilities was already within sight.
“We know these munitions have a failure rate and it seems to me extraordinary that they were fired off in the last hours of the war into areas where civilian populations were known to be going,” UN humanitarian coordinator in Beirut David Shearer told reporters during a valedictory speech on 19 September.
The Israeli army has consistently stated that all the weapons and munitions it used in the conflict with Hezbollah, and the manner in which they were used, are permissible under international law.
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