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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA | DISPATCH FROM KOSOVO

Unexploded Weapons Pose Deadly Threat on Ground

Arms: Cluster bombs turn parts of province into a no man's land. Number of amputations in capital skyrockets.

April 28, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRISTINA, Yugoslavia — Even in the age of smart bombs guided to targets by laser beams, dumb weapons that fail to explode, or lie in wait to kill later, are turning parts of Yugoslavia into a no man's land.

Unexploded bombs litter more of Yugoslavia with each day that its war with NATO drags on. Adding to the concern is the possibility that armor-piercing shells, controversial weapons that some critics argue can release dangerous levels of radioactive waste, will be widely used by the alliance in Kosovo.

Also, both Yugoslav troops and guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army have been laying land mines since at least early March, when the threat of North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes loomed closer and the civil war escalated.

During five weeks of airstrikes, witnesses interviewed here say, NATO warplanes have dropped cluster bombs that scatter smaller munitions over wide areas.

In military jargon, the smaller munitions are bomblets. Dr. Rade Grbic, a surgeon and director of the main hospital in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, sees proof every day that the almost benign term masks a tragic impact.

Grbic, who saved the lives of two ethnic Albanian boys wounded when other boys played with a cluster bomb they found Saturday, said he has never done so many amputations as he has since victims of the weapon started coming in.

"I have been an orthopedist for 15 years now, working in a crisis region where we often have injuries, but neither I nor my colleagues have ever seen such horrific wounds as those caused by cluster bombs," he said through a translator Tuesday.

"They are wounds that lead to disabilities to a great extent. The limbs are so crushed that the only remaining option is amputation. It's awful, awful."

Since cluster bombs lay down a carpet of explosions, they are often the weapon of choice against moving tanks and other military vehicles, which NATO says are at the top of its target list in Kosovo, a southern province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic of Serbia.

But in a civil war like Yugoslavia's, when civilians are never far from military targets, the risks of hurting noncombatants with cluster bombs are high.

Pristina's hospital alone has treated between 300 and 400 people wounded by cluster bombs since NATO's air war began March 24, Grbic said. Roughly half of those victims were civilians, he said.

Since this number doesn't include those killed by cluster bombs, and doesn't account for the wounded in other regions of Yugoslavia, the casualty toll probably is much higher, he said.

"Most people are victims of the time-activated cluster bombs that explode sometime after they fall," he said. "People think it's safe, and then they get hurt.

"There are villages here where large portions of the area cannot be accessed because of a large number of unexploded cluster bombs," he added. "Even when all of this is over, it will be a big problem because no one knows the exact number of unexploded bombs."

Although NATO and Pentagon spokespersons routinely refuse to say what types of weapons are dropped on Yugoslavia by their warplanes, evidence of cluster bombs isn't hard to find in Kosovo.

One of the most recent indications was the remains of a yellow canister found about 30 yards from where it exploded Saturday. The blast killed five ethnic Albanian children, ages 3 to 15, in the village of Doganovic, about 30 miles south of Pristina.

The boys found the small canister in a field while herding cattle. While two of the boys went to tell an adult, the others apparently tried to pry it open with a knife.

Hours after the blast, the knife lay covered in blood beside a shallow blast crater. The two boys who went for help were about 20 yards away when they were hit by flying shrapnel, Grbic said.

The yellow canister is the same size and color as one of 202 bomblets that fall when a 1,000-pound CBU-87--a low-tech mainstay of the U.S. Air Force's cluster bomb arsenal--releases them in midair.

Although the explosion tore several holes through the canister, the letters A/B and the numbers 20-30 and 104-012 were still legible on the outside.

A telltale metal ring, which is known as a spider and clips over a bomblet's top, also was near the small crater.

The bomblets in a CBU-87, which stands for Cluster Bomb Unit-87, can be set to explode at a certain height or time. They also can be set off by the vibrations of a passing person or vehicle.

The metal casing of each bomblet is scored so that it will break up into as many as 300 pieces of shrapnel when it explodes, according to descriptions in published guides to military munitions.

Inflatable triangles and small parachutes often are attached to cluster bomblets to slow their fall, and journalists have seen numerous types and sizes at bomb sites across Kosovo during the past five weeks.

After a NATO attack on an airfield outside the southern Kosovo town of Urosevac, a drum-shaped cluster bomb dispenser lay smashed in the middle of a road that was pocked with deep baseball-sized holes.

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