• Press Release

Brazilian cluster munitions suspected in Saudi Arabia led coalition attack in Yemen

October 30, 2015

Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces appear to have used a Brazilian variant of internationally banned cluster munitions on a residential neighborhood in Ahma in Sa’da, northern Yemen, this week, wounding at least four people and leaving dangerous unexploded submunitions strewn around the surrounding farmland, Amnesty International said today. 

The organization interviewed a number of local residents including two victims, the medical personnel treating them, an eyewitness and a local activist who visited the site shortly after the attack. Unexploded “duds” pictured at the attack site bear similarities to Brazilian-manufactured cluster bombs Saudi Arabia is known to have used in the past.

“Because cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons, their use is prohibited by customary international humanitarian law. In fact, nearly 100 states have totally banned their production, stockpiling, transfer and use, in recognition of the unique and lasting harm they cause,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International.

“In addition to killing and injuring civilians when they are initially used, many submunitions fail to explode upon impact and continue to pose a risk to the lives of anyone who comes into contact with them for years. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition must immediately cease their use and all sides should publicly commit never to deploy cluster munitions and agree to join the global Convention on Cluster Munitions.”

Eyewitness accounts

The cluster munition attack was carried out at around noon on October 27, 2015 in a residential area of Ahma, approximately 10km north-west of al-Talh in Sahar directorate, near Sa’da city. Ahma is approximately 40km south of the border with Saudi Arabia.

A local activist who visited the site several hours after the attack found three unexploded submunitions around 20m apart, one in the field of a local farm, another near a greenhouse and the third next to a mosque. The nearest military objective known to Amnesty International is a market in al-Talh, approximately 10km to the south-east, which is known to sell weapons and has been targeted by airstrikes on at least five different occasions since the start of the Saudi Arabia-led bombardment campaign in March.

Eyewitnesses described how, despite the complete absence of military aircraft, a series of rockets screamed across the sky and exploded in mid-air, followed by dozens of explosions on the ground. These accounts and the remnants found on the ground are consistent with the use of cluster munitions fired via surface-to-surface rockets, using a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS). 

Salah al-Zar’a, 35, a local farmer, was on the main road 50m away when the strike occurred: “I was on my motorcycle going in the direction of Dhahyan with another friend, when I saw… four rockets coming down… Each went in a different direction with two minutes between each rocket. There were four explosions in the sky first and then 50 explosions when they hit the ground. They landed on a group of 30 houses and shops.”

Saleh al-Mu’awadh, 48, a farmer who has 10 children, spoke to Amnesty International over the phone from his hospital bed in al-Jamhouri hospital in Sa’da city: “I was passing by on my motorbike on the main road next to the attack site, when all I felt was pieces of shrapnel. The impact of the strike affected farms a couple of kilometres away from the site.”

Shrapnel wounds 

According to medical personnel treating the patients, one of the injured, 25-year-old Abdelaziz Abd Rabbu is in a critical condition with shrapnel injuries to the abdomen and chest.

Abdelbari Hussein, 22, another civilian injured in the attack, told Amnesty International: “I was sitting in my shop when the attack happened. I did not hear a plane, all I heard was the explosions.” He sustained shrapnel injuries to the abdomen. 

Even though the attack may have targeted Huthi and other armed groups among the civilian population, the use of inherently indiscriminate weapons like cluster munitions is absolutely prohibited by international humanitarian law. Any use of cluster weapons violates this rule.

Banned cluster bombs

Cluster bombs and munitions contain between dozens and hundreds of submunitions, which are released in mid-air, and scatter indiscriminately over a large area measuring hundreds of square metres. They can be dropped or fired from a plane or, as in this instance, launched from surface-to-surface rockets. 

Cluster submunitions also have a high “dud” rate – meaning a high percentage of them fail to explode on impact, becoming de-facto land mines that pose a threat to civilians for years after deployment. The use, production, sale and transfer of cluster munitions is prohibited under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which has almost 100 states parties.

Even though Brazil, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition participating in the conflict in Yemen are not parties to the Convention, under the rules of customary international humanitarian law they must not use inherently indiscriminate weapons, which invariably pose a threat to civilians.

Brazilian ASTROS II

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Cluster Munition Coalition have documented the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s use of four types of cluster munition in the Yemen conflict to date, including three US-manufactured variants. 

But this marks the first suspected use of Brazilian-made cluster munitions in the conflict.

Several Brazilian companies produce cluster munitions. While Amnesty International was unable to independently verify with absolute certainty the make and model of the submunitions dropped on Ahma, they bear similarities to one manufactured by a Brazilian company called Avibrás Indústria Aeroespacial SA.

The ASTROS II is a truck-loaded, multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) manufactured by Avibrás. ASTROS II can fire multiple rockets in rapid succession and three of its rockets can be fitted with up to 65 submunitions, with a range of up to 80km, depending on the rocket type. The company’s website describes it as “capable of launching long-range rockets, designed as a strategic weapon system with great deterrent power.” 

According to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, Avibrás has sold this type of cluster munition to Saudi Arabia in the past, and Human Rights Watch documented their use by Saudi Arabian forces in Khafji in 1991, “leaving behind significant numbers of unexploded submunitions.”

“Brazil must immediately come clean about the extent of its international transfers of banned cluster munitions, which go back decades. Brazil and other states that continue to allow the production and transfer of these weapons cannot claim ignorance of the toll they are taking on civilians in Yemen and elsewhere. Brazil must stop production immediately, destroy its stockpiles and accede to the Convention on Cluster Munitions without delay,” said Átila Roque, Executive Director of Amnesty International Brazil. 

Amnesty International spoke to a senior official at Avibrás today who had seen the images from Yemen. He said the shape “resembles” Avibrás designs and did not rule out that it was theirs, but he said the probability of this was low because of the caliber size. However, he admitted that the company manufactured similar caliber in the early 1990s, and said he would investigate further.