By Angus MacSwan
BEIRUT, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Syrian government forces have dropped Russian-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in the past week as they battle to reverse rebel gains on a strategic highway, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.
The bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters, with many of the strikes taking place near the main north-south highway running through the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan, HRW said in a report.
Rebels seized Maarat al-Numan from President Bashar al-Assad's troops last week, cutting the route from the capital Damascus to Aleppo, Syria's biggest city. Government forces have been trying to retake the area since then.
HRW previously reported Syrian use of cluster bombs, which have been banned by most countries, in July and August but the renewed strikes indicate the government's determination to regain strategic control in the northwest.
Cluster munitions can drop hundreds of bomblets on a wide area as an anti-personnel weapon, designed to kill as many people as possible. Human rights groups say their use in civilian-populated areas can be a war crime.
More than 100 nations have banned their use, stockpiling, transfer or sale under a convention which became international law in 2010, but Syria has not signed it, nor have Russia, China or the United States.
Bomblets that do not initially explode can litter the ground, killing and maiming civilians long after a war is over.
Towns targeted included Maarat, Tamanea, Taftanaz and al-Tah. Cluster bombs have also been used in other areas in Homs, Aleppo and Lattakia provinces as well as near Damascus, the New York-based rights group said.
"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 HRW.
Syrian government officials were not immediately available to comment on the HRW report.
Initial information about the use of the explosives came from videos posted online by opposition activists although HRW investigators said it had confirmed the incidents in interviews with resident in two towns.
It had no information on casualties. The cluster bombs were Russian-made but it was not known how or when Syria acquired them, HRW said.
Residents from Taftanaz and Tamanea - both near Maarat al-Numan - told HRW interviewers that helicopters dropped cluster munitions on or near their towns last Tuesday. One that hit Tamanea released smaller bomblets in an area between two schools, a resident was quoted as saying in the HRW report.
"The bomblets that exploded were the ones that hit the ground on the tip, we collected the ones that didn't explode, their tip didn't touch the ground," the resident said.
People were taking away unexploded bomblets as souvenirs, a highly dangerous action as they can still explode at the slightest touch or movement. Video showed some civilians carrying the bomblets around and throwing them on the ground.
"The cluster munition strikes and unexploded ordnance they leave behind pose a huge danger to civilian populations, who often seem unaware how easily these submunitions could still explode," Goose said.
The United Nations peace envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, was due in Tehran later on Sunday for talks with Iranian officials, Iranian media reported.
Brahimi, who took over the mediator job after former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan quit in frustration at the lack of diplomatic progress, will meet President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior officials.
Shi'ite Iran is the main ally in the region of Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said this week Brahimi would visit Syria soon to try to persuade Assad to call an immediate ceasefire.
The anti-Assad uprising, which has been led by the Sunni Muslim majority, is backed by Sunni-ruled Arab states and by Turkey, which has increasingly taken on a leadership role in the international coalition ranked against Assad.
Turkish confrontation with Syria increased in the past two weeks because of cross border shelling and escalated on Oct. 10 when Ankara forced down a Syrian airliner en route from Moscow, accusing it of carrying Russian munitions for Assad's military.
Russia has said there were no weapons on the plane and that it was carrying a legal shipment of radar equipment. The incident threatens to cause a crisis in strategically important Russian-Turkish relations after both countries worked to keep disagreement over Syria from ruining wider ties.
Syria announced on Saturday it was banning flights by Turkish aircraft over its air space. The move was largely symbolic, as Turkey has already told its civilian airlines not to fly over Syria because of the risk of retaliation.
"The U.N. Security Council has not intervened in the human tragedy that has been going on in Syria for 20 months, despite all our efforts," Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul on Saturday.
"There's an attitude that encourages, gives the green light to Assad to kill tens or hundreds of people every day."
The bloodshed has worsened markedly in the past two months although neither side has been able to gain a distinct advantage, with government forces relying heavily on air power and artillery to batter the rebels.
Combat has been reported nationwide but the crucial strategic battles are being fought in an arc through western Syria, where most of the population lives.
After four days of heavy fighting in the town of Azmarin on the Turkish border, the rebels appeared to have a fragile hold.
"Praise be the town is now in our hands ... We have raised two flags inside the town and the battles are over. Azmarin is completely under our control," one resident, who did not want to be named, told Reuters by telephone from inside the town.
But a few km (miles) along the border clashes continued in the Syrian town of Darkush, where the crack of gunfire and sporadic sound of shelling could be heard from Turkey.
Turkey scrambled two fighter jets on Friday after a Syrian helicopter bombed Azmarin and has warned of a more forceful response if violence continue to spill over the border after a shell from Syria killed five Turkish civilians 10 days ago.