The Cluster Munition Coalition U.S. is deeply disturbed by civilian casualties from cluster munitions used in Yemen's northern Saada governorate as the Houthi-controlled territory comes under attack from airstrikes conducted by a Saudi Arabia-led group of states. The coalition endorses the call for all states participating in the operation as well as Yemen to commit not to use cluster munitions and join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. States participating in the coalition include Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Qatar, Sudan, and the UAE.
Two types of US cluster munitions have now been confirmed as used in Saada by coalition forces since the conflict began in March, according to a May 31 report by Human Rights Watch, CMC U.S. chair. This post looks at the evidence on their use.
CBU-105 cluster munitions
Human Rights Watch geolocated a CBU-105 cluster munition attack from video posted on April 17, on al-Shaaf in Saqeen in in Saada. The video shows munitions with distinctive white parachutes landing within 600 meters of several clusters of villages. Human Rights Watch has also reported a cluster munition attack outside the village of al-Amar, 35 kilometers south of Saada City. Two photographs show the remnants of two BLU-108 canisters from CBU-105 cluster munitions, including one with its four submunitions still affixed, illustrating its failure to function as intended.
In early May, Human Rights Watch researchers visited al-Amar, where locals clarified that the cluster munition attack occurred at around 11:00am on Monday, April 27. Medical staff at local hospitals informed the researchers that at least two of the victims treated from the attack were civilians, but it was not possible to interview them.
The cluster munitions stuck about 100 meters south of al-Amar on the only highway connecting Saada with the south. At the site, Human Rights Watch found a third canister--empty--in bushes nearby and saw small craters in the asphalt on the road that consistent impact craters created by the explosive submunitions released from BLU-108 canisters. Residents of al-Amar also showed Human Rights Watch an unexploded BLU-108 submunition they had taken back to the village.
According to locals, the attack occurred as hundreds of people from surrounding areas were convening on al-Amar for its weekly market day. According to one witness "When people saw the parachutes, they fled, leaving all their produce, cars, and livestock."
In recent years, the US has supplied these "Sensor Fuzed Weapons" manufactured by Textron Systems Corporation to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other states. While the CBU-105 is banned under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, its use is permitted under existing US policy as long as the munitions “after arming do not result in more than 1 percent unexploded ordnance." Its export is permitted with the requirement of a commitment from the receiving country to only use them against "clearly defined military targets" and not in civilian areas.
This use of CBU-105 cluster munitions in Yemen raises serious questions about the recipients' compliance with US export law as the attacks on al-Amar and al-Shaaf occurred very close to populated areas and at least five submunitions used on al-Amar failed to function as intended.
Photographs posted online and interviews with two local residents indicate that coalition aircraft dropped cluster munitions on at least on two districts located south of Saada City on May 23. Witnesses said that the attacks had not resulted in any casualties.
A community leader told Human Rights Watch that coalition aircraft attacked al-Nushoor district, about 16 kilometers from Saada City, four times in the early morning on May 23. His provided a detailed description of the bombs that was consistent with cluster munition use. A resident in al-Maqash district gave Human Rights Watch a similar account.
A journalist with Sadaa's al-Masirah TV visited both impact sites, told Human Rights Watch that the bombs that fell in al-Maqash district hit a village with about 20 houses, partially damaging some of them. He described the bombs as yellow and the size of water bottles. In the photographs taken by the journalist and a video posted online, Human Rights Watch identified the cluster munition remnants, including at least two-dozen BLU-97 submunitions. There are 202 BLU-97 submunitions in a cluster bomb.
The BLU-97 submunition is a notorious weapon that has been widely-used in other conflicts. Known as unreliable submunition, it was shown to result in unexploded ordnance rates of at least 5 to 7 percent after their use by the US in the conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The BLU-97 submunition contains several fuze systems making unexploded submunitions sensitive to movement and apt to detonate when disturbed. First produced in 1984, the US used 10,035 bombs containing more than 2 million BLU-97 submunitions during the 1991 Persian Gulf War in Iraq and Kuwait.
Credible evidence shows that Saudi Arabia previously dropped cluster bombs in Saada governorate in November 2009 during Yemeni government fighting against the Houthis with remnants including unexploded BLU-97 reported by clearance operators and other sources.
On 17 December 2009, the US used at least five ship- or submarine-launched TLAM-D cruise missiles, each containing 166 BLU-97 submunitions, to attack a “terrorist group” training camp in al-Ma‘jalah in the al-Mahfad district of Abyan governorate in southern Yemen. The attack killed 55 people, including 41 civilians living in a Bedouin camp. An October 2013 report by Human Rights Watch found that cluster munition remnants from the 2009 attack at al-Ma‘jalah were never cleared and BLU-97 submunitions have since killed four more civilians and wounded 13 more in the period. The most recent casualty was on 24 January 2012, when a young boy brought home a bomblet that exploded, killing his father and wounding him and his two brothers.
Other cluster munitions
Human Rights Watch also reported the use of a ground-fired type of dual-purpose improved conventional munition (DPICM) near Baqim in Saada on April 29, but could not identify the exact model, producer, or delivery method.
One resident told researchers that he saw an attack that day with an unfamiliar weapon on an area one kilometer south of Baqim. The next day that villagers found small unexploded bombs near the road. One exploded, injuring four people from the village, three men and a 10-year-old boy. The small bombs were described as about the size of a fist with a red “loop” attached. The same type of weapon was reportedly used in an attack on a different area near the town a few days later.
Photographs provided Human Rights Watch by local authorities show five small cylindrical explosive submunitions with bright red ribbons attached to one end that it identified as “spin-armed” submunitions that rely on the physical forces from a ground fired artillery projectile or rocket to function properly. Delivery by aircraft would not provide sufficient spin to arm a DPICM submunition.
Given the potential range of possible delivery systems, only Houthi or Saudi forces could have fired them but it was not possible to conclude which side was responsible for the April 29 attack. Both Saudi Arabia and Houthi forces have rocket launchers and tube artillery capable of delivering this type of weapon, but neither side is publicly known to possess this exact type of submunition.
Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify the exact model, producer, or delivery method, but has documented Islamic State forces (also known as ISIS) use of the same weapon, marked “ZP-39,” during its advance on Kobani or Ayn al-Arab in northern Syria in September 2014.
Photo: Cluster munition remnants including BLU-97 submunitions remaining from a May 23 air strike south of Saada City (c) 2015, Abdulbasit al-Sharafi