The Syrian regime was accused yesterday of stepping up its use of cluster bombs, indiscriminate munitions that can continue to maim and kill decades after the conflict has ended.
Air force helicopters have peppered areas of the country with the deadly ordnances over the past week, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report which cited 18 recent videos and interviews with residents.
Deployed from the air or ground, cluster bombs scatter dozens of smaller "bomblets" over an area the size of several football fields. They also have a high fail rate, meaning many lie unexploded, becoming effective land mines.
The latest strikes are said to have focused on the main Damascus-Aleppo highway, a key strategic artery which has been the scene of fierce fighting over the past week.
In one video a young boy sits on the floor of a house draped in a Syrian revolution flag. He prays for God to "destroy Bashar's aircraft," holding what appears to be an unexploded bomblet. Another, filmed in the Idlib town of Tamanea, shows men picking up unexploded bomblets.
The rights group, which has highlighted the use of cluster munitions in Syria in the past, said the munitions had been identified as Soviet-made RBK-250 cluster bombs, and interviewed residents who said they were dropped by helicopters.
"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, HRW's arms director.
Some 111 countries around the world have signed an international convention banning cluster munitions, but Syria is not one of them and is known to have a stockpile.
Amy Little, a campaign manager at the Cluster Munition Coalition, which lobbies for an end to the use of the weapons, said the evidence confirmed the group's "worst fears".
"Cluster munitions have a devastating impact, both at the time of use and for years after a conflict ends, and they will only prolong civilian suffering in Syria," she said. "The footage of people – even children – handling unexploded submunitions in Syria is of massive concern."
Friction between Syria and neighbouring Turkey also continued to mount yesterday as Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said Syrian flights would be banned from the country's airspace. It followed a similar move by Syria a day earlier after Turkey grounded a Syrian jet which was said to be carrying munitions – a claim Damascus denied.