BEIRUT - Up to a million unexploded cluster bomblets from Israel's war with Hezbollah are now the biggest threat to civilians in south Lebanon, where they litter streets, homes, and orchards, UN agencies said yesterday.
Fourteen people have been killed and 90 wounded by unexploded ordnance since the end of the war in mid-August, with all the fatalities and most of the injuries caused by cluster munitions, the UN Mine Action Coordination Center said.
Four-month-old Israa is seen through a hole in the glass of a window of a hairdresser's shop, that was shattered by a cluster bomb during Israel's offensive against Hezbollah in the Lebanese village of Habboush. US President George W. Bush named a delegation of corporate leaders to visit Lebanon and explore ways of helping the country rebuild following the devastating month-long war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia.(AFP/File/Marwan Naamani)
So far, the Lebanese Army, UN peacekeepers, the mine action center, and its contractors have cleared almost 40,000 unexploded cluster bomblets, but up to a million more remain.
With an estimated 12 to 15 months needed to clear the south of cluster bomblets, they pose mortal danger to displaced civilians returning to their villages after the 34-day war, the UN said.
Israel denies using cluster bombs illegally.
``The problem now rests with cluster bombs. They get caught up in bushes, in trees, in hedges. They get caught up in wire fences. . . .They are lying in people's houses, in their front gardens," Chris Clark, program manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Center in southern Lebanon, said at a news conference.
``A lot of these cluster bombs, small as they are, are caught up in the rubble and pose a continuing problem to any reconstruction . . . but the main problem will be for people who just want to go back to their houses, clear the rubble out, and try to restore their lives."
Clarke said Israel also had yet to provide detailed information on the amounts of cluster bombs fired or the coordinates of the strikes, which would help munitions clearance teams identify the main areas on which to focus their efforts.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said some 200,000 Lebanese remained displaced, their return home slowed by the destruction of their houses and by unexploded bomblets.
With winter coming up and most people in the south relying on agriculture for their main source of income, the UNHCR is concerned that farmers will be unable to return to their fields, robbing them of their livelihood, or will face a deadly threat if they do as rain sinks the bomblets into the soil.
``Displacement, which we would have expected to end much more quickly, is going to continue for many, many more months to come. . . .We expect that instead of the displacement ending so people can return to their homes in 12 months or so now it could take up to 24 months," UNHCR's Arjun Jain said.
``This is clearly the biggest threat to civilian life especially south of the Litani river."
Clark said that Israel fired around 3,000 bombs, rockets, and artillery a day into Lebanon in the early days of the war, rising to some 6,000 a day at the end, with around 40 percent of the cluster bomblets dropped on the south failing to explode.
Also yesterday, commanders of the peacekeeping force said that Israeli troops should be out of Lebanon within days.
© 2006 Boston Globe