Many of the cluster strikes were near the city of Maarat Numan in Idlib province, where Free Syrian Army rebels last week launched an offensive to free the city of government checkpoints, Human Rights Watch said in its report. The city is strategically situated along the main highway that connects the major cities of Aleppo and Damascus, the capital.
Towns in several other provinces, including on the outskirts of Damascus, were also hit with the cluster bombs, the international organization said. It did not have figures for how many people were killed in these attacks.
Cluster munitions explode in the air, sending dozens or more smaller bombs over a large area. But the smaller bombs often don’t explode on initial impact, leaving the munitions to act like landmines and explode when handled, the group said.
More than 100 countries have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans the use of cluster munitions and requires clearance of contaminated areas and assistance to victims. Syria is not a party to the convention.
“Syria’s disregard for its civilian population is all too evident in its air campaign, which now apparently includes dropping these deadly cluster bombs into populated areas,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Syria should immediately stop all use of these indiscriminate weapons that continue to kill and maim for years.”
The international group based its findings on 18 videos posted by activists online showing the aftermath of the cluster bomb strikes and unexploded munitions, as well as on follow-up interviews with Syrians. Residents from the towns of Taftanaz and Tamanea told the organization that helicopters dropped cluster munitions on or near their towns.
Such accounts are difficult to independently confirm, as the Syrian government greatly restricts the access of outside media to the conflict zones.
Human Rights Watch said it was deeply concerned about the risk posed by the unexploded munitions, which can be set off by the slightest touch, because in the online videos men and even children can be seen handling them.
A resident of Tamanea, who like others was not named by the report, said that a helicopter last Tuesday released a bomb that split in half and released smaller bomblets, which landed between an elementary school and a middle school.
Residents in Taftanaz reported a similar use of cluster bombs.
“I heard a big explosion followed by several smaller ones coming from Shelakh field located at the north of Taftanaz,” a resident there told the group. “We went to see what happened. We saw a big [bomb] cut in half and several [bomblets] that were not detonated.
"I personally found one that was not exploded," the resident said. "There were small holes in the ground. The holes were dispersed and spread around over 300 meters.”
--Times staff writer
Photo: This image provided by Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other reporting by the Associated Press, shows a portion of what Human Rights Watch says are cluster bombs dropped last Tuesday in Tamanea, Syria. Credit: Ugarit News via Human Rights Watch