The British government is preparing to scrap the country's entire arsenal of cluster bombs in the face of a growing clamor against weapons that have killed and maimed hundreds of innocent civilians.
UK officials are paving the way for the unexpected step at talks in Dublin on an international treaty aimed at a worldwide ban on the bombs.
Well-placed sources made it clear on Tuesday that despite opposition from the military, the government is prepared to get rid of the cluster munitions in Britain’s armory: the lsraeli-designed M85 artillery weapon used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and in attacks on Lebanon two years ago; and the M73, part of a weapons system for Apache helicopters.
“The prime minister is very much behind this process and wants us to sign [the treaty],” a senior Foreign Office source said on Tuesday.
Ireland, which is chairing the talks, wants a treaty text to be adopted tonight.
“If we sign up to the treaty we will lose the M85 and the M73,” the source said.
While the government appears happy for British forces to get rid of their M85 weapons immediately, it wants a “phasing out period” for its M73s.
The agreement, which was expected to be confirmed yesterday, ends a long-running dispute which has pitted the Ministry of Defence against the Foreign Office and Department for International Development. The ministry says the number of cluster bombs in the armory is “operationally sensitive” but concedes that decommissioning them will cost tens of millions of pounds.
Participants in the talks were still embroiled on Tuesday in the question of whether troops from countries who sign up to the ban could go on operations with those, notably the US, that do not.
Preventing them from doing so could lead to breaches in other treaty commitments, notably involving NATO, and would have serious practical implications, British officials said. The government also wants to allow the US to stockpile cluster weapons at US bases in the UK.
Pressure would be applied on the US not to use its cluster weapons in joint operations with countries that had banned them, officials suggest.
Cluster weapons are highly controversial because they scatter small “bomblets” over a wide area. Many of them do not explode on impact and are activated later by civilians. They caused more than 200 civilian casualties in the year after the Lebanon ceasefire, and more civilian casualties in Iraq in 2003 and Kosovo in 1999 than any other weapon system.
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