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'Extremely dangerous': Assad forces use cluster bombs as rebels gain, rights group says

Ugarit News / Human Rights Watch via AP

This citizen journalism image which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows what Human Rights Watch says are cluster bombs dropped in Tamanea, Syria on Oct. 9, 2012.

Updated at 10:38 p.m. ET: Syrian government forces have dropped Soviet-made cluster bombs over civilian areas in the past week as they battle to push back rebel gains, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.

The bombs were dropped from planes and helicopters, with many of the strikes taking place near the main north-south highway running through the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numan, HRW said in a report.

"If we needed any further proof of the Syrian government's complete disregard for the lives of its own citizens, its own children, well, here it is.  Because we know now that the government is using cluster munitions in populated areas," Philippe Bolopion of Human Rights Watch said in a video statement.  "And of course these weapons are extremely dangerous for the civilian population and the children."

The munitions, which first detonate in midair and release bomblets over a wide area, can remain active for years, the rights group said. Children, who often pickup the munitions, are especially vulnerable to cluster bombs. 

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Residents from Taftanaz and Tamanea -- both near Maarat al-Numan -- told HRW interviewers that helicopters dropped cluster munitions on or near their towns last Tuesday. One that hit Tamanea released smaller bomblets in an area between two schools, a resident was quoted as saying in the HRW report.

"The bomblets that exploded were the ones that hit the ground on the tip, we collected the ones that didn't explode, their tip didn't touch the ground," the resident said.

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HRW previously reported Syrian use of cluster bombs, which have been banned by most countries but not Syria, in July and August but the renewed strikes indicate the government's determination to regain strategic control in the northwest.

Researchers identified the the munitions as Soviet-made RBK-250, which would be particularly dangerous because old weapons are less likely to detonate on impact, Bolopion said. New York-based HRW did not know how or when Syria acquired the munitions.

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Rebels seized Maarat al-Numan from President Bashar Assad's troops last week, cutting the route from the capital Damascus to Aleppo, Syria's biggest city. Government forces have been trying to retake the area since then.

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Towns targeted included Maarat, Tamanea, Taftanaz and al-Tah. Cluster bombs were also used in other areas in Homs, Aleppo and Lattakia provinces as well as near Damascus, the rights group said.

Initial information about the use of the explosives came from videos posted online by opposition activists although HRW investigators said it had confirmed the incidents in interviews with resident in two towns.

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People were taking away unexploded bomblets as souvenirs, a highly dangerous action as they can still explode at the slightest touch or movement. Video showed some civilians carrying the bomblets around and throwing them on the ground.

"The cluster munition strikes and unexploded ordnance they leave behind pose a huge danger to civilian populations, who often seem unaware how easily these submunitions could still explode," Goose said.

Herve Bar / AFP - Getty Images

A man who lost a member of his family cries as he sits outside his destroyed home following a government air strike in the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province on Saturday.

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Syrian government officials were not immediately available to comment on the HRW report.

Meanwhile, Turkey banned all Syrian aircraft from its air space on Sunday, days after intercepting a Syrian airliner carrying what it said were Russian-made munitions for the Syrian army.

Asked if Syrian aircraft were now banned from Turkish air space, a Foreign Ministry official said: "Yes, civilian aircraft. Military aircraft were de facto banned way before."

Syria said on Saturday that it was banning Turkish civilian flights over its territory.

Reuters and NBC News staff contributed to this report. 

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