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Assad forces accused of using cluster bombs

BEIRUT/AMMAN--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.

Rebels surrounded an army garrison on Sunday near a northwestern town, in the latest push to seize more territory in a province near the Turkish border, opposition activists said. Rebels also posted video on the Internet purportedly showing a fighter jet they had shot down in the area the previous day.

Several hundred soldiers were trapped in the siege of a base in Urum al-Sughra, on the main road between the contested city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial and industrial hub, and Turkey.

“Rebels attacked an armored column sent from Aleppo to rescue the 46th Regiment at Urum al-Sughra and stopped it in its tracks,” Firas Fuleifel, one of the activists told Reuters by phone from Idlib province, west of Aleppo. He said the jet was shot down while trying to provide air support to the column.

Rebels say they have been extending their control on the rugged agricultural province throughout the past week, capturing several towns on the border and making gains in the al-Rouge plain west of the city of Idlib, the provincial capital.

The province is the main base and supply route for rebels fighting urban warfare against Assad's forces for control of Aleppo, a city of several million people that could determine the course of the 18-month rebellion against Assad.

Deadly Weapons

New York-based Human Rights Watch said cluster bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters near the main north-south highway running through Maarat al-Numan, a town rebels seized last week cutting the route from Damascus to Aleppo.

HRW previously reported Syrian use of cluster bombs in July and August, but the renewed strikes indicate the government's determination to regain strategic control in the northwest.

Cluster munitions drop hundreds of bomblets on a wide area, designed to kill as many people as possible. Human rights groups say their use near civilian homes can be a war crime.

More than 100 nations have banned their use under a convention which became international law in 2010, but Syria has not signed it, nor have Russia, China or the United States.

Towns targeted included Maarat, Tamanea, Taftanaz and al-Tah. Cluster bombs have also been used in other areas in Homs, Aleppo and Latakia provinces, and near Damascus, HRW 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.

HRW said it learned initially about the latest use of the weapons from videos released by opposition activists and had confirmed it in interviews with residents in two towns. It had no information on casualties. The bombs were Russian-made, but it was not known how or when Syria acquired them, it said.

Residents from Taftanaz and Tamanea — both near Maarat al-Numan — told HRW interviewers that helicopters had dropped cluster munitions on or near their towns last Tuesday.

One that hit Tamanea scattered bomblets between two schools, a resident was quoted as saying in the HRW report. People were taking away unexploded bomblets as souvenirs.

“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,” HRW's Goose said.

Syrian government officials were not immediately available to comment on the HRW report. The official state news agency said on Sunday that loyalist forces had killed dozens of “terrorists” in Aleppo, and had captured rockets.

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A Syrian boy looks on as he sits on a wheelchair in a newly built refugee camp at the village of Qah, northwestern Idlib, near the Turkish border on Sunday, Oct. 14, which is under the control of rebel fighters. (AFP)

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