GENEVA (Reuters) - Russian cluster bombs killed at least 12 Georgian civilians and wounded or maimed at least 38 during the war between the two former Soviet states last August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday.
The U.S.-based body, which has had investigators on the ground in Georgia since the week-long conflict, said in a report that Georgia had also illegally used the weapon, which many countries want to be banned.
“Russia definitely violated international humanitarian law with its use of cluster munitions,” Bonnie Docherty, HRW researcher and author of the report, “A Dying Practice,” told a news conference to mark the release of the 80-page study.
The report said Russian forces carpet-bombed the Georgian town of Variani on two different days during the fighting, and also hit the main square in the town of Gori on August 12 as civilians were gathering there.
Russia has consistently denied that it deployed the weapon, which releases hundreds of small bomblets on impact. Many do not explode immediately, remaining a threat to civilians, and especially children, for a long time afterwards.
The report said HRW experts and other investigators, including a team from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, had turned up evidence showing that Russian cluster weapons killed at least 12 people and wounded at least 38.
Georgia, which admits that it used an Israeli-made version of the weapon, says it used them only against Russian or allied troops, but HRW says they killed at least four civilians and wounded eight in the enclave of South Ossetia.
The week-long war was largely fought around that enclave, which has long wanted to break away from Georgia. Since the fighting it and Abkhazia, another Soviet-era Georgian province, have declared independence and been recognized by Moscow.
The HRW report was issued as experts from a range of governments opened a four-day meeting in Geneva to discuss an agreement on limiting production and use of cluster munitions, which many military leaders are reluctant to give up.
HRW said the only solution to humanitarian and post-conflict problems the weapon posed was a total ban, as provided for by an international Convention on Cluster Munitions launched just 3 months before the Russia-Georgia conflict.
“Whoever the user, and whatever the type used, cluster munitions pose unacceptable risks to civilians and need to be eliminated,” declared Docherty.
Of the 107 countries which approved the text, 96 have so far endorsed the convention since it was opened for formal signature last December, and six have ratified it. It will go into force and become legally binding when 30 have ratified it.
(A full version of the report can be read on Human Rights Watch website: www.hrw.org)
Editing by Tim Pearce