WELLINGTON, New Zealand - A leading human rights group called Sunday for a U.N. investigation into Israel's use of cluster bombs during its 2006 campaign against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
Israel said the majority of the weapons were used in areas that were "not built up." It that said built-up areas were targeted only if they contained sites for launching rockets or missiles, and that residents were always warned.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called for an independent inquiry to determine whether individual Israeli commanders "bear responsibility for war crimes."
The group claimed in a report that Israel violated international humanitarian law with hundreds of "indiscriminate and disproportionate cluster munitions attacks on Lebanon."
It released the report ahead of the opening Monday of a 120-nation conference in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, on a proposed convention to ban cluster munitions that cause unacceptable harm to civilians.
The United States, Russia, China and Israel - all important producers and stockpilers of cluster bombs - oppose a ban and have blocked efforts to negotiate one at the United Nations.
At a news conference Sunday, Human Rights Watch said Israel had rained as many as 4.6 million submunitions, or cluster bomblets, across southern Lebanon.
The report's lead author, Bonnie Docherty, said the United Nations must investigate whether Israel deliberately targeted civilians with the munitions.
"Ninety percent of the (bombing) strikes occurred in the last three days (of the war when) Israel knew a cease-fire was imminent," she told reporters.
Steve Goose, director of the Arms division at Human Rights Watch, said unexploded cluster bomblets "have killed and maimed almost 200 people since the war ended."
"The Lebanon story is just the latest example of something we've have seen over and over again: Whenever cluster munitions are used, large numbers of civilians get killed and injured," Goose said.
Israel said Sunday it had used cluster munitions in southern Lebanon in direct response to Hezbollah launching more than 4,000 rockets and missiles against Israeli civilians - "as well as cluster munitions."
"Israel's operations were directed against legitimate military objectives. The majority of cluster munitions used by Israel were directed against areas which were not built up. In those cases where cluster munitions were used against built-up areas, it was done toward rocket/missile launching sites and only after numerous warnings were given to the local population," said Arye Mekel, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman.
"The use of cluster munitions is not prohibited under international law. Like other weapons, its use is subject to the laws of war," he said.
© 2008 Associated Press