San Diego Union-Tribune

November 2, 2001

Use of cluster bombs has Pentagon on the defensive
   Air-dropped food parcels, bomblets are same color


WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon scrambled yesterday to defend the use of cluster bombs in the air war against Afghanistan. The munitions can litter the ground with unexploded bomblets the same color -- yellow -- as the food packages being dropped to Afghan civilians.

Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the use of the same color is unfortunate and that the food packages will be changed to blue.

Until that can be accomplished, the U.S. military is broadcasting warnings on radio and dropping leaflets with pictures that illustrate the difference between the food packages and the munitions, Myers said.

The cluster bombs are being used increasingly in the attacks on the Taliban front lines, and human rights groups have called on the Pentagon to stop using them because they are a threat to civilians, particularly children.

Asked to explain the use of the munitions, Myers noted that more than 5,000 people were killed Sept. 11 in the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. The bombing in Afghanistan is part of the war on those responsible for the deaths, he said.

"We are trying to be very careful in the way we plan this particular conflict" to conduct it "in such a way that we minimize civilian casualties," Myers said.

The general said war planners match weapons against planned targets and use the weapon best suited for the specific target. "In some cases that means cluster bombs," he said.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was more blunt, saying the cluster bombs "are being used on front-line al Qaeda and Taliban troops to try to kill them."

Cluster bombs are large bomb-shaped containers dropped from aircraft that release about 200 explosives the size and shape of soda cans and can cover an area the size of a football field.

Human rights groups condemn the bombs because many of the bomblets do not explode when dropped, but can blow up if handled. The organizations say the unexploded bomblets are as dangerous as land mines.

Human Rights Watch said cluster bombs are particularly dangerous in Afghanistan because they are bright yellow, the same color as the plastic packages of humanitarian rations that Air Force transports are dropping.

"It is highly likely that many in Afghanistan will not know the difference between aerially delivered food aid and aerially delivered munitions," an unnamed U.N. expert in mine clearance said in a Human Rights Watch news release.

Human Rights Watch said cluster bombs should not be used because of their wide dispersal pattern.

The organization cited a U.N. report about a cluster bomb that hit the western Afghan village of Shaker Qala on Oct. 22, killing nine civilians and injuring 14. The surviving villagers had to leave because many of the yellow munitions were scattered around.

The group also cited studies of the Persian Gulf War and the NATO-led air wars in the Balkans that said about 7 percent of the bomblets did not explode.

The military says the cluster bombs are effective against troops and military vehicles.

Reporters with the 1st Marine Division in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm saw how cluster bombs devastated Iraqi trenches and bunkers. Reporters and their escorts also had to sidestep the duds scattered around the abandoned Iraqi positions.