THE US military will use armed drones over Libya, Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, as coalition forces sought a breakthrough in the campaign against Muammar Gaddafi.
The move comes as US authorities foreshadowed war crimes sanctions against Gaddafi forces over the use of cluster bombs.
Gates said the decision to use unmanned drones armed with missiles was made “because of the humanitarian situation” in Libya, where Gaddafi’s forces are battling a Western-backed insurgency.
Gates said the unmanned aircraft will be useful because of “their ability to get down lower, therefore to be able to get better visibility on particularly targets now that have started to dig themselves in into defensive positions.”
He said the drones “are uniquely suited” for the mission in Libya for use on a 24-hour basis in urban areas, and to limit collateral damage.
“They give you a capability that even the A10 (anti-tank aircraft) and AC130 (ground attack aircraft) couldn’t provide” in the conflict in the North African nation, he told a press briefing.
General James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said two drones were to be over Libya starting yesterday but that the deployment was delayed due to poor weather.
Gates said that the deployment represents “a very limited additional role on our part,” in Libya but argued that it did not mean “mission creep” for the United States.
The US military uses drones in Pakistan to kill Taliban fighters and members of Al-Qa’ida.
Cluster bombs designed to destroy tanks have been fired into Misrata, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
The group identified an unexploded ordnance found in the town as from a Spanish MAT-120 cluster bomb.
The bomb, fired from a mortar with a range of 5km, contains 21 bomblets and bursts in the air near the target, scattering them across a radius of 30m.
Each bomblet explodes on impact, discharging 650 shrapnel fragments and an armour-piercing copper plug.
The characteristic pop, then rippling multiple explosions, of MAT-120 rounds have been reported by journalists and HRW activists in the densely populated areas of Al-Gzeer, Maghdar and Kurzaz.
Warning of potential war crimes charges, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on Tuesday: “Using imprecise weaponry such as cluster munitions, multiple rocket launchers and mortars, and other forms of heavy weaponry, in crowded urban areas will inevitably lead to civilian casualties.
“Markings on the MAT-120 bomblet found after an attack on April 14 showed it was made in Spain in 2007, HRW said.
Spain has ratified the treaty banning cluster munitions, which came into force last August.
HRW has called on Spain to reveal how many it sold to Colonel Gaddafi’s government.
Peter Bouckaert of HRW said the weapons had been fired daily into Misrata since April 12.
“This is a dual purpose cluster munition,” he said. ” It has both anti-personnel fragments and anti-armour capability powerful enough to destroy a tank. So you can imagine what they do when they hit people.”
HRW believes that the Gaddafi forces also have cluster munitions that can be fired by artillery or dropped from aircraft.