Monday, June 25, 2018

Syria accused of dropping cluster bombs at rebels

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian government was accused Sunday of dropping cluster bombs — scattershot munitions banned by most nations — in a new sign of desperation and disregard for its own people, activists said.

The international group Human Rights Watch cited amateur video and testimony from the front lines in making the allegation against the government of President Bashar Assad.

Syria and Turkey, meanwhile, declared their skies off-limits to each other amid mounting cross-border tensions in Syria's 19-month-old conflict. Turkey is outspoken about backing the rebels trying to oust Assad.

The weekend's mutual ban on overflights is part of Turkey's increasingly assertive stance toward Syria that has stirred concerns about a regional conflict. In the past two weeks, Turkey has retaliated for stray Syrian shells and mortar rounds landing inside Turkey and had intercepted a Syrian passenger plane on suspicion it carried military equipment. The Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported Sunday that Turkey has sent more warships to naval bases north of the Syrian coastline.

Inside Syria, rebel fighters and government forces have been locked in a bloody stalemate for weeks, with rebels holding large rural stretches in the heavily populated western area but unable to dislodge Assad's troops from urban centers. During the summer, the government escalated shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held neighborhoods.

Human Rights Watch said new amateur videos and interviews with residents suggest the Syrian air force has dropped cluster bombs in the past week, mainly along a main north-south highway in western Syria that runs through Maaret al-Numan, a town captured by rebels after fierce fighting.

Cluster bombs open in flight, scattering smaller bomblets over a wide area. Many of the bomblets don't explode immediately, posing a threat to civilians long afterward.

Steve Goose, an arms expert for the New York-based human rights group, said most nations have already banned cluster bombs and that many of those who haven't, including the United States, said they would do so soon.

The Syrian government had no immediate comment.

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