UN to clear coalition cluster bombs

The United Nations has initiated the daunting task of clearing an estimated 25,000 unexploded cluster bomblet units (CBU) dropped on Afghanistan by US warplanes. The move comes after coalition forces provided the United Nations Mine Action Programme (MAPA) with a list of 103 sites where cluster bombs were used.

"Failed CBUs pose a significant threat to people returning to areas where they have been targeted, due to their instability and the random nature of dispersal," Antonio Donini, UN deputy humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, told IRIN on Wednesday in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Survey activities were now under way to effectively quantify the threat, he said.

According to the MAPA programme manager, Dan Kelly, cluster bombs, the main casing of each of which contains about 200 bomblets, are designed to scatter over a specific area, causing significant damage to buildings and people. Shaped like a soft drink can, the bomblets - bright yellow, weighing one and a half kilogrammes - are designed to fragment at high velocity into hundreds of pieces of shrapnel.

Able to ignite combustible materials, they can pierce through 125 mm of armoured steel. Normally used for disabling targets such as airfields, 10 percent of the bomblets dropped fail to explode, littering the area and posing a constant threat.

The coalition forces have so far provided information on a total of 103 sub-munition strikes. Of these, 78 were struck by a total of 1,210 CBUs, equalling a total of 244,420 sub-munitons. Information on another 25 areas was being sought from coalition headquarters, and would hopefully be provided shortly, Kelly added.

With large-scale displacement, and some 5,000 Afghans returning daily, Donini said there was now a higher risk of mine injury. "The risk from all unexploded ordnance [UXO] and mines is increased when people move through, or return to, areas with which they are unfamiliar, and where a threat exists. This risk is increased as people have a need to find firewood, graze farm animals, or take routes outside those regularly trafficked," he said.

Mine awareness was therefore of paramount importance, he stressed, adding that awareness messages had been modified to reflect the new threat, and were being promulgated widely.

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, a UN spokesman, Eric Falt, told reporters that no cluster bombs seem to have been used within the confines of the Afghan capital, Kabul. However, there were four confirmed cluster-bomb sites on the old road north of Kabul. The number of unexploded bomblets was less than expected, and Halo Trust, a nongovernmental organisation working for MAPA, had almost finished clearing these sites, he explained.

Additionally, MAPA had almost finished clearing Kabul of new UXO, mainly bombs in the 500- to 2,000-lb range. However, multi-launch rocket systems, anti-aircraft missiles and millions of rounds of ammunition continued to pose a threat in the capital city. "Due to coalition attacks on ammunition depots, there is still a lot of unexploded ordnance in and around Kabul city that spewed in various directions when the targets were hit," Falt noted.

Last week, MAPA began working in the village of Denar Kheil, 10 km from Kalokhan, towards the Bagram airbase, currently being used by coalition forces. "The village was cluster-bomb attacked by coalition forces last month, and is now heavily contaminated by unexploded BLU-97 bomblets," Falt said. "Given the high risk to the local population, especially children, a UN survey team is being sent to map the exact area of contamination, and, following this, a team will undertake surface clearance before it snows."

Earlier, the Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) called on the US to impose an immediate moratorium on the deployment of cluster bombs and antipersonnel mines in Afghanistan, reinforcing at the same time an appeal to share relevant information with UN mine-clearance experts in Afghanistan. In a statement on 2 November, PHR said cluster bomblets had caused high rates of civilian casualties in Kosovo in 1999, and risked doing the same in Afghanistan.

According to MAPA, Afghanistan is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, with 732 million square kilometres of its territory littered with mines and UXO. While MAPA has succeeded in clearing more than 1.6 million UXOs from former battlefields, agricultural lands, roads, and residential areas, between March 1978 and December 2000, at least 2,812 people have been killed by mines and thousands more injured.