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Last Updated:  Thursday, 3 April, 2003, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
UK forces use cluster bombs
Cluster bombs on an RAF Harrier in an RAF factsheet
Cluster bombs on a Harrier jet were highlighted in an RAF factsheet
British forces say cluster bombs have been used in the Iraq conflict but not in built up areas in and around Basra.

Military commanders insisted the highly controversial munitions have not been fired near Iraq's second city after reports British gunners in southern Iraq had used them.

BBC correspondent Hilary Andersson, with UK troops in southern Iraq, was told L20 cluster munitions had been used against Iraqi forces.

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon confirmed the use of cluster bombs by British forces, in the Commons on Thursday, but stressed they were not used in and around Basra.

British troops in Basra desert
No matter how well intended the British troops might be the civilians are trapped in the fighting
Hilary Andersson

He accepted the weapons could cause casualties - which he said he regretted, but said the bombs were a consequence of conflict.

They were sometimes the most suitable weapon for dealing with wide area targets, and without their use on "appropriate occasions", the military would be putting the lives of British and coalition forces at greater risk, he said.

He told MPs attempts were made to minimise the risk if at all possible.

Earlier British military spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon, in Kuwait, told reporters: "We are not using cluster munitions, for obvious collateral damage reasons, in and around Basra."

'Effective weapon'

But a Ministry of Defence spokesman told BBC News Online: "We have used them elsewhere."

He said they were an effective weapon of warfare, for example to target a convoy of military vehicles, but were only used in the open far from built up areas.

Cluster bombs have also been used by US B-52 bombers on air assaults on Iraqi units defending Baghdad.

There is little the allied forces could do to prevent the occasional loss of life
Iwuji Fabian, Nigeria

The detonation of such bombs is controversial because of the risk of civilians being injured in attacks or from unexploded bombs.

British charity Landmine Action has condemned their use.

Its director Richard Lloyd said: "As we know from Afghanistan, Kosovo and the last Gulf war, these weapons cannot be used in a way that discriminates between civilian and military targets."

MoD officials say only about 5% of L20 bomblets do not explode on impact.

Bomb expert dies

For those that do not there is a secondary device to ensure they do so within 15 seconds.

This is the first time the UK and US military have confirmed their use in this conflict.

Sgt Chris Muir
Our son Ben can grow up knowing that his father was a good, honest, hardworking soldier, who died trying to do the right thing
Sgt Chris Muir's widow Gillian

Col Vernon said: "We fully reserve the right - it's a legitimate munition - to use (them) against Iraqi regular forces, where appropriate."

Elsewhere a bomb disposal expert from Hampshire killed in Iraq has been named by the MoD.

Staff sergeant Chris Muir, 32, from the Army School of Ammunition, based in Kineton, Warwickshire, died on Monday.

As the fighting continues, UK forces spokesman Group Captain Al Lockwood said the patrolling around Basra was "aggressive" while troops were winning the confidence of the local Iraqi people.

But correspondent Tim Franks, with troops outside Basra, said there was no sense a decisive battle for Iraq's second city was imminent.

US forces are now said to be taking up positions outside Baghdad international airport in what could be a crucial first battle for the city's control.

Mr Hoon said on Thursday coalition troops were making "remarkable progress" as they move in on Baghdad. But he said: "Do not underestimate the task that still faces our forces or the length of time that it may take to complete."

The BBC's Hilary Andersson reports from S.Iraq
"Cluster bombs, in any form, are highly controversial"

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