Libyan forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi have been accused of using potentially devastating cluster bombs in an assault on a rebel-held city.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch reported
that it had evidence that at least three cluster bombs had exploded in Misurata on April 14.
The group said on its website that pro-regime forces had fired the munitions into civilian areas of the city, which the leaders of the United States, Britain, and France have said is being subjected to a "medieval siege."
Cluster bombs are banned by more than 100 countries under an international convention because of their capacity to cause devastation in civilian areas. They explode in midair, indiscriminately throwing out dozens of high-explosive miniature bombs that cause destruction and injuries over a wide zone. Libya is not a signatory to the convention outlawing their use but has denied doing so.
"Absolutely not. We can never do this. We challenge them to prove it," a Libyan government spokesman, Mussa Ibrahim, said in response to the allegations.
However, on a statement on its website, Human Rights Watch said it possessed clear evidence. "Researchers inspected the remnants of a cluster submunition and interviewed witnesses to two other apparent cluster munition strikes," the statement said.
Steve Goose, the organization's arms director, said: "It's appalling that Libya is using this weapon. They pose a huge risk to civilians, both during attacks because of their indiscriminate nature and afterward because of the still-dangerous unexploded duds scattered about."
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was unaware of the reports but added: "I have to say I am not surprised at anything that Colonel Qaddafi and his forces do, but that is worrying information and it is one of the reasons why the fight in Misurata is so difficult. It is at close quarters, it is in amongst urban areas and it poses a lot of challenges to both NATO and to the opposition."
Misurata, Libya's third-largest city, has been under siege for 50 days and is reported to have sustained immense destruction. More than 100 rockets were fired at it on April 15 as it came under a second successive day of heavy bombardment.
More than 1,000 refugees from the beleaguered city arrived by boat in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi late the same day. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said many of those on board the chartered Greek vessel were in desperate need of medical attention after weeks with little food or water.
One of the organization's aid workers described the conditions people in the town were enduring.
"Well, we're working under three restraints," the aid worker told Reuters. "One is the security environment. It's pretty dangerous, to say the least, both for us and for the migrants. The second one is time, you know. Time is running out for a significant proportion of them. There are definitely signs of malnutrition, dehydration, and without access to clean water, good nutrition and shelter, health care, some of them will perish."
One refugee, Amr Fadel, originally from Iraq, described to the same agency what the situation was like in the town.
"We're some of the people that faced extremely heavy bombing. And then, at the end, when the militias entered, they occupied our homes and destroyed our roofs over our heads, and they began to shoot any civilian in the streets," Fadel said. "That's the truth and I say that in all honesty."
The suffering in Misurata is heaping pressure on NATO forces to increase air attacks to stop the bombardment. But the alliance is split over providing more planes for the task.
"The New York Times
" also accused Qaddafi forces of using cluster bombs.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said after talks
with his NATO counterparts on April 15 that the military alliance was exceeding its UN mandate in Libya and called for an urgent move toward a political settlement to the conflict.
Meanwhile, rebel leader Abdel Fattah Younes told Al-Arabiya TV that Libyan rebels were fighting forces loyal to Qaddafi in Brega. He said the rebels were well armed with weapons from friendly nations. It was not possible to independently verify the claim about insurgent gains on the eastern front of Libya's ongoing conflict.based on Reuters and other agency reports