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British-made cluster bomb found in Yemeni village targeted by Saudi-led coalition

Yemeni local talks of 'bombs hanging off the trees' as Amnesty International calls on UK Government to do more to trace the whereabouts of weapons

Published 23/05/2016

UK's armed forces are banned from using cluster bombs
UK's armed forces are banned from using cluster bombs

A British-manufactured cluster bomb has been found in a Yemeni village, all but confirming the banned weapons are being used by Saudi-led coalition forces in the Yemeni civil war.

The BL-755 cluster bomb is designed to be dropped by UK-manufactured Tornado jets used by the Saudi Arabian Air Force, though the highly controversial weapons were banned in conflict decades ago.

Amnesty International discovered the unexploded munition during an inspection of a village in northern Yemen. The weapon, originally manufactured in the 1970s by a Bedfordshire company called Hunting Engineering, contains 147 ‘bomblets’ which scatter across a wide area, but often do not detonate until they are disturbed at later date, often by unsuspecting civilians picking them up. One man, who herds goats in a village in Hajjah governorate approximately six miles from the Saudi Arabia border, told Amnesty: “In the area next to us, there are bombs hanging off the trees.”

Amnesty International says the UK government must do more to trace the whereabouts of these weapons sold in the past, and to destroy existing stockpiles. Cluster munitions are banned in more than 100 countries. Since the 1980s and 1990s the UK is thought to have sold large numbers of cluster munitions to Saudi Arabia and the UAE (which is also part of the Saudi Arabia-led military coalition), and the weapon is known to be in the ordnance stockpiles of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Saudi Arabia has purchased scores of UK Tornado jets, through contracts which provide for British personnel to work in pilot training and service roles connected to the planes.

Amnesty International’s head of UK Arms Controls said it would be an “absolute scandal” if British personnel had been in any connected to the incident.

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A Yemeni worker looks at the damage at the Noor Centre for the Blind after it was reportedly destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in the capital Sanaa on January 5, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
A Yemeni worker looks at the damage at the Noor Centre for the Blind after it was reportedly destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in the capital Sanaa on January 5, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni blind men hold a banner during a demonstration gathering disabled people to protest after a center for the blind was reportedly destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in the capital Sanaa on January 6, 2016. Nearly 6,000 people have been killed since March, according to UN figures. At least 2,795 of them are civilians. AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED HUWAISMOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni blind men shout slogans during a demonstration gathering disabled people to protest after a center for the blind was reportedly destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in the capital Sanaa on January 6, 2016. AFP/Getty Images
Yemeni blind and disabled people shout slogans during a demonstration to protest after a centre for the blind was reportedly destroyed by Saudi-led airstrikes in the capital Sanaa on January 6, 2016. Nearly 6,000 people have been killed since March, according to UN figures. At least 2,795 of them are civilians. AFP/Getty Images
Medics transport an injured Yemeni man on a gurney as he arrives at a hospital in Sanaa after being injured when two suicide bombers hit a mosque in the Yemeni capital. AFP/Getty Images
Smoke billows from the military college in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, during a Saudi-led coalition air strike on September 2, 2015. AFP/Getty Images
Smoke rises after an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition at an army base in Sanaa, Yemen, Wednesday, Sept. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)
A Saudi-led air strike in Yemen. (AP)
Saudi soldiers stand on top of armoured vehicles, on the border with Yemen at a military point in Najran. (AP)
Saudi soldiers prepare to fire artillery towards the border with Yemen in Najran, Saudi Arabia. (AP)
Yemeni members of the southern separatist movement, loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, stand next to a tank on April 15, 2015 in Aden's northern suburbs. Saudi-led coalition air strikes hit rebel targets in the Yemen's main southern city after overnight attacks by anti-government forces killed seven people, military sources and medics said. AFP/Getty Images
A supporter of the Shiite Huthi militia attends a demonstration in Yemen's second larget city of Taez on April 3, 2015, to protest against the Saudi-led coalitions Operation Decisive Storm against the rebels in Yemen. AFP/Getty Images
A Yemeni man stands near his house destroyed by Saudi airstrikes near Sanaa Airport, Yemen (AP)

David Cameron defends UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia and bombing in Yemen  

“Cluster bombs are one of the nastiest weapons in the history of warfare, rightly banned by more than 100 countries, so it’s truly shocking that a British cluster munition has been dropped on a civilian area in Yemen,” he said.

"Given that this type of cluster bomb is very likely to have been used in combination with Tornado war planes which the UK has also sold to Saudi Arabia, there’s even a possibility that British support personnel might have been involved in the cluster bombing of Yemen. This would be an absolute scandal if confirmed.”

A Yemeni firefighter extinguishes smoke rising from buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAISMOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
A Yemeni firefighter extinguishes smoke rising from buildings destroyed in an air-strike by the Saudi-led coalition on February 10, 2016 in the capital Sanaa. / AFP / MOHAMMED HUWAISMOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Yemeni civilians told Amnesty International that they have had to resort to removing bomblets themselves, fearing that children will pick them up or their livestock killed. Hindi Ibrahim, a 25-year-old father of two from Dugheij Village, Hayran, Hajjah governorate, said his his arm was injured by an explosion when he and other villagers attempted to clear hundreds of bomblets from their village:

“The original airstrike happened late last July or August during the day and [some of] the bomblets exploded. There were also Apaches [helicopters] that shot at people as they ran away. There were 500 pieces in the village everywhere … we wanted to remove them. Some were inside the house in the courtyard and kitchen … [the de-mining organisation] kept on promising they would come but they never came.

"They told us they were busy in other areas. By February, we were forced to clean them ourselves because of the children. At the time I went into the house and put ten [submunitions] on a tray and carried them out of the house. The bombs started hitting against each other and one went off. I dropped the tray and the rest went off.”

An employee inspects a building destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen (AP)
An employee inspects a building destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen (AP)

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A spokesperson for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “The UK is not a member of the Saudi-led Coalition. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.

Yemen is mired in conflict
Yemen is mired in conflict

“The UK Government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. All export licence applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, taking account of all relevant factors at the time of the application. The Government is satisfied that extant licences for Saudi Arabia are compliant with this export licensing criteria.”

Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn said: "This report is shocking and it is further clear evidence pointing to the use of cluster bombs by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.

"The UK helped to lead the adoption of the international ban on cluster munitions and the Government should now launch an immediate investigation to find out what has happened." 

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