Tue, Aug 22, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Bombs prove lethal legacy for returning Lebanese


When the guns went silent in Aitta Shaab, a war-ravaged village close to the Israeli border, three children skipped through the rubble looking for a little fun.

Hurdling over lumps of crushed concrete and dodging spikes of twisted metal, Sukna, Hassan and Merwa, aged 10 to 12, paused before a curious object. Sukna picked it up. The terrifying blast flung her to the ground, thrusting metal shards into her liver. Hassan's abdomen was cut open. Merwa was hit in the leg and arm.

"We thought it was just a little ball," said Hassan with a hoarse whisper in the intensive care ward at Tyre's Jabal Amel hospital.

In the next bed Sukna, a ventilator cupped to her mouth and a tangle of tubes from her arms, said even less.

Her mother watched anxiously.

"The Israelis wanted to defeat Hezbollah," Najah Saleh, 40, said. "But what did these children ever do to them?"

Israel may be pulling out of Lebanon but its soldiers leave behind a lethal legacy of this sum-mer's 34-day war. The south is carpeted with unexploded cluster bombs, innocuous looking black canisters, barely larger than a flashlight battery, which pose a deadly threat to villagers stumbling back to their homes.

Mine-clearing teams scrambling across the region have logged 89 cluster bomb sites so far, and expect to find about 110 more.

Meanwhile, casualties are being taken into hospital -- four dead and 21 injured so far. Officials fear the toll could eventually stretch into the thousands.

"We already had a major landmine problem from previous Israeli invasions, but this is far worse," said Chris Clark of the UN Mine Action Coordination Center in Tyre, standing before a map filled with flags indicating bomb sites.

Cluster bombs are permitted under international law, but UN and human rights officials claim Israel violated provisions forbidding their use in urban areas.

"We're finding them in orange plantations, on streets, in cars, near hospitals -- pretty much everywhere," Clark said.

The bombs are ejected from artillery shells in mid-flight, showering a wide area with explosions that can kill within 10m.

But up to a quarter fail to explode, creating minefields that kill civilians once the war is over. A decades-old campaign to ban them has failed.

Israel turned to cluster bombs in the last week of the war, apparently frustrated at the failure of conventional weapons to rout Hezbollah fighters from their foxholes. Mine-clearance teams are finding evidence pointing to their provenance: the US, the world's largest cluster bomb manufacturer, which gave Israel US$2.2 billion in military aid last year.

In Nabatiye, 15 people were injured in just one day along a bomb-strewn road. In Tibnin, 210 bombs were found around the town hospital.

In Yahmour, a hilly frontline village that has become a complex urban minefield, minesweepers from the UK-based Mine Action Group have cleared the main roads and some house entrances. But danger lurks everywhere.

One elderly woman lost her leg in an explosion on Aug. 14 as she swept her yard.

Now holes pock the road, yellow tape appears around fields and houses, and residents tip-toe around the "grape bombs."

Ilham Tarhini, 45, stood at her front door appealing for help. After returning from refuge in Syria three days ago she found tiny bomblets poking from the soil of her garden of olive trees. From where she was standing she could count eight.

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