Amnesty: Syrian military used cluster bombs in besieged area

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BEIRUT (AP) — Amnesty International said Thursday the Syrian government has used internationally banned cluster munitions in attacks on a besieged rebel-held suburb of Damascus, accusing it of committing war crimes on "an epic scale."

Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb northeast of the Syrian capital, has been under a tightening siege since 2013 and is already facing a humanitarian crisis, including the highest recorded malnutrition rate since the country's civil war began in 2011.

Some 400,000 civilians, half of them children, are believed trapped there.

Based on interviews with activists in eastern Ghouta and verification of open source videos and photographs, Amnesty said at least 10 civilians were killed in November because of the government's use of the banned Soviet-made cluster munitions.

The indiscriminate weapons, banned in over 100 countries, gravely endanger civilians because of their indiscriminate nature, Amnesty said.

"The Syrian government has shown callous disregard to the lives of the hundreds of thousands of people living in Eastern Ghouta," said Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa. "But this recent escalation in attacks - clearly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure using internationally banned cluster munitions - is horrific."

Amnesty said the munitions first appeared in Syria after Russia began strikes against anti-government groups in September 2015. Witnesses interviewed by Amnesty said they saw cluster munitions projectiles — small bombs strapped to parachutes — used in densely populated market and residential areas.

The United Nations has said it is concerned about the ongoing violence in Eastern Ghouta, which has intensified since Nov.14.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the civil war, has recorded that at least 150 civilians, including 35 children, were killed since Nov. 14 in the suburb, when a renewed round of intense fighting began.

Russia informed the U.N. on Tuesday that the Syrian government had agreed to a 48-hour truce in the area at the start of a new round of U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva.

Diplomats are hoping that the parties to the Syrian conflict may be ready to make some forward progress in talks, which formally got under way with the arrival of the government delegation in Switzerland on Wednesday. There is little optimism, however, that the current round — the eighth so far — would achieve any significant breakthroughs.

On Thursday, the Syrian government and opposition delegations in Geneva met separately with the U.N. envoy, Staffan de Mistura.

Opposition spokesman Yahya Aridi said his delegation was "ready to stay engaged in the talks as long as necessary." He said the opposition was looking forward to serious negotiations over a "transition to freedom" in Syria, including releasing detainees held in government prisons.

Separately, Turkey sent troop reinforcements and howitzers to its border with Syria, amid warnings by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other officials that Turkey may intervene to contain the Kurdish group that is running north Syria. Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency reported the deployment.

Turkey sees the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing the People's Protection Units (YPG) as a security threat. The PYD is an affiliated organization of a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey.

Also on Thursday, the U.S. announced that more than 400 Marines was being sent home after completing its mission providing artillery fire support in the war on the Islamic State group.

The Marines, part of a force estimated at over 1,500 U.S. troops in Syria, were supporting the YPG and allied Arab fighters to defeat Islamic State militants in their de-facto capital, the north Syrian city of Raqqa. The city fell on Oct. 20.

U.S. support for the Kurds has been a major source of friction in relations with Turkey, which is a NATO member. With the IS group largely defeated in Syria, the White House informed Ankara last week it was "adjusting" its military support to its partners. Still, U.S. officials are suggesting they plan to maintain a U.S. troop presence in the north until an overall settlement for the war is found.

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Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten contributed from Geneva.