Surgeons in Ukraine's rebel Donetsk confirm cluster bomb usage

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - Surgeons in east Ukraine's rebel hub of Donetsk, where dozens of civilians have died in recent weeks, confirmed on Tuesday that some patients were victims of cluster bombs, as alleged by Human Rights Watch.

Although Kiev vehemently denied that its troops battling the pro-Russian insurgency in the east are using the controversial and indiscriminate cluster munitions, medics claimed Ukrainian forces were at fault.

"I have removed fragments of submunition weapons used by Ukrainians from the injured dozens of times," said a surgeon in Donetsk's Kalinin hospital, one of the facilities treating wounded civilians over the past weeks.

The global rights organisation HRW published an investigative report identifying 12 incidents in which the highly imprecise munitions killed six people, including a Swiss aid worker, earlier this month.

Cluster bombs are munitions that contain dozens or even hundreds of smaller explosives that are carried by bombs or rockets and "spread indiscriminantly over a wide area, often the size of a football field," the HRW report said.

"These arms are not for destroying buildings, they are uniquely for killing people," the surgeon working in the Kalinin hospital said, refusing to give his name.

"The little darts cause grave injuries," he said. "There have been cases when we found up to 20 or 30 of them in one person."

Most of the world has signed a treaty banning cluster bombs, but not Ukraine -- nor have the United States and Russia.

Kiev however has denied using the weapons, blaming the separatists and vowing to launch a full probe into the reports.

"These charges are groundless," said Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman Bogdan Senyk.

- Rebels decry 'war crime' -

Several kilometres from the Kalinin hospital, a local pro-Russian rebel leader at a checkpoint to the next city of Makiyivka showed unexploded shells filled with sharp two-centimetre-long fragments to AFP.

"This shell hit Makiyivka. Other similar ones have been falling on neighbourhoods near the Donetsk airport in almost daily artillery attacks," said the 40-year-old rebel named Alexei.

He said that Ukrainian forces have pounded the city from outlying positions with cluster munitions "since the beginning of the war," launching them with Grad and Uragan truck-mounted systems.

"I have operated on a patient who was injured by one of these darts," a surgeon at hospital No. 17, who introduced himself as Nikolai, told AFP. "It was about 10 days ago. I only had one such case."

Other hospitals across the Donetsk region reported no cases. Several surgeons interviewed by AFP at three other hospitals said they have not seen cases of injuries with such weapons.

"I saw this sort of thing on television, but not once in my career as a surgeon," said Igor, a surgeon and an emergency response official in a regional hospital.

Leaders of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, based in the separatist stronghold Donetsk, said Kiev's usage of such arms amounts to a war crime.

"There are dozens of known cases of usage of this type of weapons," said the DNR's deputy prime minister Andrei Purgin.

"It's a war crime. We hope that there is an investigation into these crimes so that an international tribunal judges the guilty, that is to say, the Ukrainian state."

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