Banned Cluster Munitions Used Against Civilians in Azerbaijan

Exclusive: Widely-banned Russian-made cluster munitions were used during an attack upon residential areas in Barda, Azerbaijan, that killed 21 people.
October 29, 2020, 5:19pm
Cluster munitions in Barda, Azerbaijan
Lama al-Arian / Vice News

Widely-banned Russian-made cluster munitions – which appear to have been fired by Armenian forces – have been used against residential areas in the town of Barda, Azerbaijan.

VICE News journalists were able to corroborate the use of cluster munitions in an attack that took place on the 28th of October. In an investigation carried out just hours after the attack, we discovered and examined impacts and remnants of Smerch submunitions, which have been independently verified by Amnesty International’s military expert, Brian Castner, former UN military advisor, Marc Garlasco, and Justin Bronk, research fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute defence think tank.

Because of their indiscriminate effect, more than 100 countries have signed a treaty banning cluster munitions, but neither Azerbaijan nor Armenia are signatories.

The team on the ground identified numerous impact site locations – including the grounds of a hospital and the yards of civilian houses – indicative of submunitions: small circular craters in the ground. 

Aftermath of cluster munitions attack, Barda

Hind Hassan / VICE News

Azeri government officials say that 21 people were killed, which represents the deadliest reported attack on civilians since renewed fighting broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh last month. We gained access to Barda’s main hospital morgues, where 12 bodies were being stored. The majority of bodies, which were dressed in civilian clothing, had missing limbs, burns on the skin and abdomens ripped open – all consistent with explosion and blast injuries.

GettyImageVehicles damaged after a shelling attack in Barda, Azerbaijan on the 28th of October.s-1229336853.jpg

Vehicles damaged after a shelling attack in Barda, Azerbaijan on the 28th of October. Gavriil Grigorov/TASS/Getty Images

Human rights organisations have previously corroborated the use of cluster munitions in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, purportedly fired by Azeri forces. But this is the first time any independent team has verified their use against targets in Azerbaijan, in attacks carried out by Armenian forces. Both Azerbaijan and Armenia have denied using cluster munitions.

"Amnesty International’s Crisis Response experts have identified weapons which struck a residential neighbourhood in the centre of Barda, a town in central Azerbaijan, on 28 October 2020 as Russian-manufactured 9N235 cluster munitions,” said Castner, Senior Crisis Advisor for arms and military operations at Amnesty International. “These were most likely delivered by 300mm ground-to-ground 9M55 Smerch rockets, which have a range of approximately 70km and are known to be in the possession of Armenian forces.”

“Cluster munitions are inherently indiscriminate weapons and as such their use, in any circumstances, is banned by International Humanitarian Law [the Laws of War],” Castner said. “These weapons are also internationally banned by Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty backed by more than 100 states. Neither Armenia nor Azerbaijan have signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, and have both been using the deadly weapons in the current conflict – killing and wounding civilians.”

A burned out car in Barda after the attack

Hind Hassan / VICE News

ANAMA, a non-military Azerbaijan de-mining agency, said it found remnants of two Smerch 9N235 rockets with 72 bomblets. ANAMA director Ganzafar Ahmadov said there were no military or police stations present at the site of the attack, and only civilian locations were targeted.

The use of cluster munitions against civilians has previously been strenuously denied by Armenian authorities. The Armenian Ministry of Defence was not immediately available for comment. 

Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan, but has been under the control of ethnic Armenians, backed by Armenia itself, since a war there ended in 1994.

Additional reporting by Tim Hume.