Geneva: Evidence is growing that Russian forces are using cluster bombs in Syria, campaigners said on Thursday, as they released a report showing more than 400 people were killed or maimed by the munitions in the world last year.
Human Rights Watch blamed a sharp increase in the use of the banned bombs on Russian forces who are carrying out air strikes in support of President Bashar al-Assad`s regime.
"Russia appears largely responsible for the significant increase in cluster munition attacks on opposition-held areas of Syria since it began its joint military operation," HRW said in a statement, launching the latest Cluster Munition Monitor report.
Russia has repeatedly denied using cluster bombs, which spray bomblets indiscriminately.
But the report said there was "compelling evidence that Russia is using cluster munitions in Syria and/or directly participating with Syrian government forces in attacks using cluster munitions."
"Victims of these notoriously indiscriminate weapons deserve assistance and a better response than denials, dismissals, and obfuscation," said Mary Warenham, HRW`s arms advocacy director and editor of the report.
A total of 248 people were killed or injured by the munitions in Syria alone last year. The munitions also killed or maimed 104 people in Yemen.
The annual report, co-authored by a coalition of rights groups and NGOs, provides an overview of how countries are implementing the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which bans all use, production, transfer and stockpiling of the weapons.
Syria and Russia are not among the 100 signatories of the landmark convention, but HRW says they remain bound by international law, which bans the indiscriminate attacks that are the hallmark of cluster bombings.
Attacks in Syria using the illegal weapons fell significantly in late 2014 and early 2015, but rose again after Russia began carrying out air strikes, resulting in "near-daily reports of cluster munition attacks", HRW and its partners said.
In the four years since the Syrian regime launched its first air strikes in July 2012, at least 360 cluster munition attacks have been recorded, with 76 since Russia`s intervention began last September, it said.
"The actual number is likely far higher," it said.
The report, which was co-authored by several groups including Handicap International, said there was "compelling evidence" that Russian forces were using cluster bombs "on opposition-held areas of governorates such as Aleppo, Homs and Idlib, and on armed opposition groups".Syrian government forces have used at least 13 different types of cluster munitions produced by Russia and Egypt and some date from the Soviet era, the report said.
Several of the cluster bombs dropped since Russian forces entered the Syrian war last year were produced in 1989-91, it added.
The report said this appeared to be "a noticeable shift" from before the Russian intervention, "when production markings on the cluster bombs used in Syria showed they were produced in the 1970s and 1980s."
The other country where cluster bomb attacks have been documented since July 2015 is conflict-torn Yemen.
The report said the Saudi-led coalition waging a military campaign in support of Yemeni President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi`s embattled government carried out at least 19 cluster munition attacks between April 2015 and last February.
Saudi Arabia has denied using cluster munitions against civilian targets.
"The best way to ensure that cluster munitions don`t harm civilians in Syria and Yemen is to stigmatise their use and press countries that are using them to stop the attacks," report editor Warenham said.Syria and Yemen accounted for the majority of the 417 deaths or injuries from cluster munitions worldwide last year.
But six other countries recorded casualties, mainly from unexploded submunitions from attacks that took place years ago, the report said.
Many of these devices fail to explode on impact, meaning countries such as Cambodia, Iraq, Laos and Vietnam often find it impossible to clear what become de facto landmines.
Furthermore, many bomblets are brightly coloured, attracting children and exploding when they are picked up.
Civilians accounted for 97 percent of all cluster munition casualties around the world in 2015, the report said.