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.
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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."