MISURATA, Libya — Military forces loyal to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi have been firing into residential neighbourhoods in this embattled city with heavy weapons, including cluster bombs that have been banned by much of the world and ground-to-ground rockets, according to witnesses and survivors, as well as physical evidence.
Both of these so-called indiscriminate weapons, which strike large areas with a dense succession of high-explosive munitions, by their nature cannot be fired precisely. When fired into populated areas, they place civilians at grave risk.
The dangers were evident beside one of the impact craters on Friday, where eight people had been killed while standing in a bread line. Where a crowd had assembled for food, bits of human flesh had been blasted against a cinder-block wall.
The use of such weapons in these ways could add urgency to the arguments by Britain and France that the alliance needs to step up attacks on the Qaddafi forces, to better fulfill the United Nations mandate to protect civilians.
It could also apply conflicting pressures on the United States. President Obama has spoken strongly about how American air power helped avert a humanitarian crisis in Libya, but also insisted on pulling back that air power and ceding control of the campaign to NATO earlier this month, a handoff that seemed to embolden the Qaddafi forces.
At the same time, the United States has used cluster munitions itself, in battlefield situations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in a strike on suspected militants in Yemen in 2009.
When asked about the munitions at a news conference in Berlin, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was “not aware” of the specific use of cluster or other indiscriminate weapons in Misurata, but said, “I’m not surprised by anything that Colonel Qadaffi and his forces do.”
She added: “That is worrying information. And it is one of the reasons the fight in Misurata is so difficult, because it’s at close quarters, it’s in amongst urban areas and it poses a lot of challenges to both NATO and to the opposition.”
The cluster munitions were visible late Thursday night, in the form of what appeared to be at least three 120-millimeter mortar rounds that burst in the air over the city, scattering high-explosive bomblets below. The same munitions were fired Friday, amid a fierce barrage of tank, artillery and rocket fire from the Qaddafi forces.
Remnants of expended shells, examined and photographed by The New York Times, show the rounds to be MAT-120 cargo mortar projectiles, each of which carries and distributes 21 submunitions designed both to kill people and to penetrate light armor.
Components from the 120-millimeter rounds, according to their markings, were made in Spain in 2007 — one year before Spain signed the international Convention on Cluster Munitions and pledged to destroy its stocks. Libya, like the United States, is not a signatory to the convention. The Spanish Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
The fin of one round, which damaged a city ambulance on Wednesday, bore the clear factory markings of the Spanish manufacturer, Instalaza. Another of the rounds was visible exploding a few hundred yards from the hospital during a fierce battle between rebels and loyalists Friday evening and night.
Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group, verified the use of the cluster munitions as well, and called on the Qaddafi government to stop using them.
“It’s unconscionable that Libya is using these indiscriminate weapons, especially in civilian populated areas,” said Steve Goose, director of Human Rights Watch’s arms division. “Cluster munitions are inaccurate and unreliable weapons that pose unacceptable dangers to civilians.”
Still, a spokesman for Libya’s government, Moussa Ibrahim, dismissed the allegations that cluster munitions were being used, according to Reuters. “I challenge them to prove it,” he said.
The cluster munitions are not the only indiscriminate heavy weapon system to imperil the city. The Qasr Ahmed residential district near the port was struck Thursday by multiple rockets, known as Grads, which landed in a dense pattern on houses and streets. One rocket shattered the wall beside a mosque.
The Grad is an area weapons system designed in the Soviet Union to blanket a battlefield with multiple and virtually simultaneous rocket blasts. The rockets were readily identified by their twisted fragments and remains, some of which bore markings indicating they had been made during the cold war.
The rockets, slightly more than nine feet long and packed with a high-explosive charge, are fired from truck-mounted launchers that hold 40 rocket tubes. Each truck is, essentially, a mobile system that can launch its own barrage 12 miles or more.
One of the Grad rockets alone killed eight civilians, according to survivors and witnesses, who then showed two journalists eight hastily dug graves in a public park nearby, where relatives prayed over the dead. The bodies had been buried beside two children’s swing sets. Each grave was dated: April 14, 2011.
Many others were killed in the strike, according to medical officials, including 11 people whose remains are in a morgue, and others who residents said were buried in family cemeteries on Thursday.
Taken together, the attacks of Thursday and the evidence they left behind point to a campaign by Colonel Qaddafi’s forces against Misurata that relies in part on weapons that pose very high risks to the lives of the civilians trapped within. They support the rebels’ frequent contentions that in the lopsided fight for Libya, Colonel Qaddafi’s forces have taken aim at civilians or, at a minimum, taken few measures to avoid endangering them.
The Grad barrage on Thursday, for example, struck an area without any visible military infrastructure or signs of military activity, beyond a roadblock with a lone rebel holding an aged rifle. One rocket landed beside a bakery. Several struck homes. One exploded near a mosque.
The graves also bore information that suggested noncombatants were killed. One victim’s tombstone listed him as 9 years old. Another was for a 75-year-old man.
“This is a human tragedy,” said Ali Salem, 40, a resident of Qasr Ahmed, who said his four children now struggled to sleep. “What else do you call it when they bomb with artillery, rockets and mortars people who are safely sleeping in their homes?”
How the Qaddafi military came to acquire Spanish cluster munitions, banned in Spain soon after their manufacture, was not immediately clear. But the war has shown what has long been known or suspected: that Colonel Qaddafi’s military, flush with oil money, has amassed stockpiles of arms from all manner of sources.
On the front lines in Libya, the government’s stockpile, whether used by loyalists or rebels who looted government armories, has included a full suite of former Eastern bloc arms beside former NATO munitions.
The toll of the Grad rocket strikes also framed the ways in which civilians are being forced to take risks to survive. Misurata has few open markets, almost no electricity and limited supplies of food. To eat, many residents must stand in bread lines.
When one of the rockets that landed in Qasr Ahmed exploded beside such a line, it killed several people waiting for food. “I jumped onto the ground when the explosions started,” said Ali Hmouda, 36, an employee of the port. “My friend did not. His head came off.”
Reporting was contributed by Steven Lee Myers from Berlin and Raphael Minder from Madrid.