Syria's Assad using cluster bombs
Marea, Syria - The plane came in from the southeast late in the afternoon, releasing its weapons in a single pass. Within seconds, scores of finned bomblets struck and exploded on the homes and narrow streets of this small Syrian town.
After the screams and the desperate gathering of the victims, the staff at the local Freedom Hospital counted four dead and 23 wounded. All were civilians, doctors and residents said.
Many forms of violence and hardship have befallen Syria's people as the country's civil war has escalated this year. But the Syrian government's attack here on Dec. 12 pointed to one of the war's irrefutable patterns: the deliberate targeting of civilians by President Bashar Assad's military, in this case with a weapon that is impossible to use precisely.
Syrians on both sides in this fight have suffered from the bloodshed and sectarian furies given dark license by the war. The victims of the cluster bomb attacks describe the tactic as collective punishment, a mass reprisal against populations that are with the rebels. The munitions in question - Soviet-era PTAB 2.5M's - were designed decades ago by Communist engineers to destroy battlefield formations of Western armored vehicles and tanks. They are ejected in dense bunches from free-falling dispensers dropped from aircraft. The bomblets then scatter and descend nose-down to land and explode almost at once over a wide area, often hundreds of yards across.
Marea stands along an agricultural plain, surrounded for miles by empty fields. Even at night, or in bad weather, it cannot be mistaken for anything but what it is - the densely packed collection of small businesses, offices and homes that together form a town.
Two journalists from The New York Times were traveling toward Marea as the attack occurred and arrived not long after the exploding bomblets had rippled across its neighborhoods.
Blood pooled on the street, including beside a water-collection point at an intersection where Nabhan al-Haji, 18, was killed.
Another victim, Ahmad Najjar Asmail, had been riding a motorcycle when a submunition landed beside him. He was decapitated. Ramy Naser, 15, was also fatally wounded.
The hospital was crowded with patients. Many more were en route to hospitals in Turkey.
The use of cluster munitions is banned by much of the world, although Syria, like the United States, is not party to that international convention. In the detached parlance of military planners, they are also sometimes referred to as area weapons - ordnance with effects that cover a sprawling amount of ground.
In the attack on Marea, at least three dispensers, each containing 42 bomblets slightly smaller than a one-liter bottle and packed with a high-explosive shaped charge, were dropped squarely onto neighborhoods and homes.
Two funerals began as the sun set, the latest in a town that rose early against Syria's government, and has been one of the seats of defiance.
One homeowner, Ali Farouh, showed the place where a PTAB-2.5M struck an exterior wall on his patio. His young son held up bits of shrapnel.
"Bashar is a horse," Farouh said, almost spitting with disgust as he said the president's name. "He is a donkey."
An examination of the area by daylight found the signature signs of an air-delivered cluster munitions attack, including unexploded PTAB 2.5M submunitions, the tail sections and fins of three dispensers and three main dispenser bodies.
One resident also displayed the nearly intact remains of an ATK-EB mechanical time fuse associated with the same dispensers. Fragments of the submunitions' fins were in abundance. An interior spacer and dispenser nose plate were also found.
Throughout the town, many of the narrow, telltale craters made by shaped charges could be seen. Some cut deep holes through asphalt into the dirt below, almost like a drill.
It was not immediately clear why Marea was attacked, although many residents ascribed motives that mix collective punishment with revenge.
The town is the home of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a prominent rebel field commander in the Aleppo region. Saleh, charismatic and lean, is locally known with near reverence as Haji Marea, and is celebrated by his townspeople for his mix of battlefield savvy, courage and luck. Earlier this month, just days before the cluster attack on his hometown, he was named a leader in the reorganized Free Syrian Army, as many rebels call themselves.
Residents said Marea's recent history, and its indelible connection to the commander it produced, has earned it a high place Assad's list of targets.
"The regime especially hates us," said Yasser al-Haji, an activist who lost a cousin in the attack.
No one disputes that Marea has repeatedly been attacked by some of the Assad government's most frightening weapons. On Thursday, residents reported being hit by cruise missiles, perhaps Scuds, which they said landed just north of the town with tremendous, earth-heaving explosions.
In the case of the cluster munitions attack, one of the submunitions did strike a building being used by the rebels - a school where some of Haji Marea's fighters are based. It blasted a small hole in the concrete roof and sprayed bits of concrete and shrapnel into the room below, which was empty.
Several fighters, who were meeting in the next room as the jet screamed overhead - and the sole bomblet, out of more than 100, hit their building - chuckled at their near miss. But they were enraged by the attack.
They spoke of the government's escalation of weapons throughout the year - from mortars, tanks and artillery to helicopter gunships, then to fixed-wing attack jets. Since summer, Assad's military has used cluster munitions repeatedly, and recently began using incendiary cluster munitions, too. This month, Syrian activists and officials in Washington said the government had ratcheted up the pressure with one of the last unused weapons left in its stock - cruise missiles, with conventional warheads. Analysts who have watched the gradual escalations said the Assad government has followed a "boil-the-frog-slowly" strategy.
With the incremental escalations, they say, Assad has prevented the West from finding cause to enter the war, as NATO did against Moammar Gadhafi of Libya after he rolled out almost all of his military's full might at the war's outset.
One fighter, who gave his name as Mustafa, said that Assad has little left that he has not used. The fighter said he expected no restraint.
"In the coming days, he'll use the chemicals and he'll destroy everything," he said. "And will burn the people, and kill all the people - children, women, old men, the elders."
Assad, Mustafa said, "just needs to kill."
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