Russia’s state-run RT network has broadcast footage appearing to show Russian jets in Syria armed with cluster bombs, weapons which are widely condemned for their indiscriminate nature and which Moscow has denied using during its intervention in the five-year-old conflict.
A news segment aired by RT on June 18 showed two canister-like attachments under the wing of a Russian jet that bear codes identified by independent activists as those of Russian cluster munitions.
А group of Russian and Western bloggers known as Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) said parts of the segment were later edited to remove video of the weaponry, but then restored.
The use of Russian-built cluster bombs in the Syrian conflict has been documented by independent bloggers as well as human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, though those assertions have been denied by Russian military officials.
Cluster munitions scatter small bomblets over wide areas, though frequently the bomblets fail to explode and pose a long-term threat to civilians. Their use has been banned by 118 countries, but not by Russia or Syria.
The footage aired as part of a larger RT news report about the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to the Hemeimeem air base in northwestern Syria. Russian jets and bombers have been flying out of the base since September, when Moscow launched its campaign to bolster the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In one part of the segment, an Su-34 strike fighter, also known as a Fullback, is shown taxiing across a tarmac. As a man who appears to be a pilot walks under the jet’s wing, the two attachments are visible, along with identifying codes.
The codes, which can be read with some effort, say RBK-500 ZAB 2.5SM, which independent monitors say are known incendiary cluster weapons in Russian arsenals.
Later clips of the segment posted to YouTube omitted the under-the-wing shot, instead cutting directly to a meeting overseen by Shoigu.
The CIT blogging collective, which gained wide attention for its investigation of the shoot down of Malaysia Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014, first documented the edited footage in the RT report.
As of June 20, however, the complete clip, with the weaponry visible, had been restored on YouTube and elsewhere.
While the blogging team accused RT of censoring its own video footage, a note attached to the clip on YouTube says the part was removed by an editor “out of personal safety.”
"There was never any intention to censor the video," the note said. “Upon reevaluation it was deemed that the frame did not pose any risks; it had since been restored and the video is up in its original cut."
The Russian Defense Ministry had not publicly commented on the video by the evening of June 20 in Moscow.
Major General Igor Konashenkov, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said in December that there were no cluster munitions "at the Russian air base in Syria."