- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 16, 2008

UPDATED:

A leading human rights group says it has evidence that Russia used cluster bombs against the civilian population and infrastructure in Georgia.

Officials with Human Rights Watch say they have eyewitness accounts, as well as video and photographic evidence, that Russian aircraft dropped cluster bombs in populated areas in Georgia, killing at least 11 civilians and injuring dozens.

The group says Russian aircraft dropped RBK-250 cluster bombs, each containing 30 PTAB 2.5M submunitions, on the town of Ruisi in the Kareli district of Georgia on Tuesday.

It says the attack killed three civilians and wounded five. The group says that a cluster strike took place the same day in the center of the city of Gori, killing at least eight civilians and injuring dozens.

Human Rights Watch spokesman Mark Hiznay denied a request by The Washington Times to see the video and photos, citing the need to protect journalists and researchers in the field.

The Russian attacks would represent the first known use of cluster munitions since Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, the group says.

Russia denied using the munitions.

“These lies were prepared in advance,” Col. Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn, a senior official at the Russian Defense Ministry, said during a briefing in Moscow. “We never used this kind of weapon.”

Cluster munitions are bombs that contain dozens or hundreds of smaller submunitions or bomblets. Experts say they are highly effective against soft targets that have no armor such as airfields, buildings or people.

But the indiscriminate nature of the weapons, combined with the fact that many bomblets don’t explode and remain on the ground as de facto land mines, have made them a focal point for international efforts to ban them.

In May, 107 countries agreed to a ban on cluster munitions. Neither Russia nor the United States participated in the talks.

“Russia´s use of this weapon is not only deadly to civilians, but also an insult to international efforts to avoid a global humanitarian disaster of the kind caused by land mines,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch researchers said they interviewed victims, doctors and military personnel in Georgia, analyzed photos of craters and had seen video footage of Tuesday’s attack on Gori. Researchers also say they saw a photo of the submunition carrier assembly and nose cone of an RBK-250 bomb in Gori.

The Gori video showed more than two-dozen simultaneous explosions during the attack, which is characteristic of cluster bombs, the organization said.

Human Rights Watch said doctors at Tbilisi’s two main hospitals described numerous injuries to civilians in the attack on Gori that they think were consistent with cluster bombs. And the group’s researchers said they saw a doctor extract a submunition fragment from a victim’s head.

Human Rights Watch in recent reports have not laid all blame on Russia. When HRW researchers entered Tskhinvali on Aug. 13, for example, they reported that the city was largely deserted and had been heavily damaged, but not entirely by Russian forces.

“Since Georgian and Russian forces use identical Soviet-era weapons systems including main battle tanks, Grad multiple-launch rockets, BMP infantry fighting vehicles and tube artillery, Human Rights Watch cannot definitely attribute specific battle damage to a particular belligerent. [B]ut witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage that researchers saw that day,” the report states.

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