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Cluster Bombs In The Balkans, 10 Years Later, Still Threaten 160,000 People

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BELGRADE, Apr 8 (IPS) - An estimated 160,000 people in Serbia are still in danger from thousands of unexploded cluster bombs, ten years after the NATO bombing campaign. The danger is gravest in the south, close to the border with Kosovo.

A survey by the independent Norwegian People's Aid (NPA) says that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) cluster bombs lie scattered through 15 municipalities in southern Serbia, endangering close to half the population in the region.

Cluster bombs are carried in 'mother bombs' dropped by planes. Those bombs eject clusters of smaller 'bomblets' designed to explode on impact.

NATO carried out a bombing campaign in 1999 to end a Serb onslaught against the ethnic Albanian rebellion in Kosovo. NATO used cluster bombs on army convoys or troop concentrations in Kosovo. But cluster bombs were used randomly as well. The bombing of southern Serbian city Nis in May 1999 left 20 dead and more than 100 wounded.

The failure rate of this weapon, which is up to 15 percent, means that thousands of unexploded bomblets remain underground and lead to death or injuries among civilians for years. The unexploded ammunition needs to be destroyed on the spot by specialists.

"Unexploded cluster bombs remain dug in the soil at 50 to 70 centimetres," Miroslav Pisarevic, cluster bomb expert and researcher at the NPA project told IPS. "They are in the fields, that people cannot use any more. Thus they are a universal safety and development threat."

International efforts to ban cluster bombs have led to creation of the Cluster Munition Coalition (CMC), which is lobbying for a ban of such weapons. An international convention to ban cluster bombs has been signed so far by 94 states. The convention will come into force globally six months after 30 states ratify it.

So far, six states have ratified the convention - Austria, the Holy See, Ireland, Laos, Norway and Sierra Leone. Ratification by 30 countries is needed for the convention to become international law. It will then hold for the ratifying states.

Major weapons producers such as the United States, Russia and China have not signed the convention. Serbia was one of the countries that joined the efforts for a ban on cluster weapons, but it refrained from signing the international document without any explanation.

Two years ago, Serbia was among the most active states in supporting international efforts to ban cluster ammunition. But it stayed away from a meeting in Dublin last December when the final text of the convention was adopted.

No Serbian official is willing to comment on the U-turn. Officials at the ministry of foreign affairs say their ministry supports a ban, but that the decision lies with the ministry of defence and the Council for National Security. Ministry of defence officials decline comment.

A strong military lobby is still active in Serbia, and the country has large stockpiles of cluster ammunition, produced for decades in the country and used in the wars of the 1990s.

That does not ease the problem of the cluster bombs dropped by NATO. The NPA survey says Serbia needs about 38 million dollars to unearth and defuse unexploded cluster ordnance.

"We, the victims, represent the real face of this weapon," Dejan Dikic, Serbian activist from Ban Advocates told IPS. "It is a shame of civilisation...when we speak to diplomats about the ban issue, most of them have enough honesty not to look us into the eyes." Ban Advocates is an organisation that brings together people from diverse cluster munitions affected communities. Dikic is one of the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Nis.

"I am disgusted by the attitude of my government," Dikic said. "I can't understand it. Serbia was a leader in the process, especially on victim assistance."

"There is no country I'm more disappointed with than Serbia," Thomas Nash, global coordinator of the Cluster Munition Coalition told IPS. "The government owes it to its people to join the convention and obtain the necessary funds for further clearance of unexploded cluster bombs."

According to official NATO information provided to Serbia in 2007, 1,080 cluster bombs were dropped on 219 locations in Serbia proper, and 1,392 bombs (with 289,536 bomblets) were dropped on 333 sites in Kosovo.

Read more from Inter Press Service.

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