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Investigation: civilian zones in Kharkiv hit by Russian cluster munitions

Investigation: civilian zones in Kharkiv hit by Russian cluster munitions

On Feb. 28, the Russian military fired rockets containing cluster munitions at Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Amateur videos filmed in the city that day show multiple explosions over a commercial area, and rocket debris in a residential area to the southwest. By determining the precise location of the explosions and the debris, the France 24 Observers traced a trajectory leading to the origin of the rockets: 30km northeast of Kharkiv, inside Russia.

Such indiscriminate attacks on civilians are considered a war crime. 

Russia has been bombarding Kharkiv since at least Feb. 25, 2022. On Feb. 28, the city was hit by rockets containing cluster munitions, multiple explosive devices designed to scatter over a broad area and inflict widespread damage. The production and use of cluster munitions is banned by a 2008 convention signed by more than 100 countries (but not signed by Russia, China or the United States). 

Cluster munitions are contained in a larger projectile such as a rocket, missile or bomb. When the projectile reaches the target, it scatters the smaller devices – the cluster munitions – across a broad area. In cases where the cluster munitions are delivered by a missile or rocket, the non-explosive tail section of the missile or rocket often continues its trajectory, hitting the ground beyond the target. 

A Russian-made 9M55K rocket. The part shaded in yellow is designed to hold cluster munitions. © Armament Research Service (ARES)

The Russian-made 9M55K rocket is fired from a wheeled launch vehicle known as a BM-30 Smerch. Smerch launchers can fire a salvo of 12 rockets at a time. 9M55K rockets have a range of 20-70 km.

Video footage showing debris from such rockets was filmed Feb. 28 in Kharkiv (see our article) and shared on social media and messaging apps like Telegram. Video #1 below shows the tail section of a rocket embedded in the middle of Vasylia Stusa street (exact location 50°00’12.1″N, 36°19’58.7″E).

The rocket in Vasylia Stusa street was filmed from a distance of several dozen metres and details of its structure are not clearly visible. Another tail section was filmed Feb. 28 around the corner on Hvardiitsiv-Shyronintsiv street (Video #2 below, exact location 50°00’12.7″N, 36°19’50.7″E). On this rocket, more clearly visible, rows of three holes can be seen on the tail, with tail fins attached by hinges. The holes and fins are consistent with 9M55K rockets.

Other residents of Kharkiv Feb. 28 filmed sites where cluster munitions themselves hit. Video #3 below shows multiple explosions in the vicinity of the city’s Equator shopping centre. The explosions are over an area that contains parking garages and car-repair shops. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) announced March 2 that it was investigating possible war crimes and crimes against humanity in the conflict in Ukraine. Interviewed March 3 by France 24’s Marc Perelman, ICC chief prosecutor Karim Khan said: “What is very clear is that using wide-range weapons, indiscriminate weapons, particularly such weapons in populated areas can give rise to criminal responsibility.”

The 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions bans all use of such weapons.

Possible use of cluster munitions in Kharkiv. There was a video posted earlier that showed a Smerch MLRS rocket booster landing in Kharkiv, which can carry cluster munitions. https://t.co/fitcfyuNDr pic.twitter.com/Xd9XubbhuL

— Rob Lee (@RALee85) February 28, 2022

Video #3: This videe filmed in Kharkiv Feb. 28, 2022 shows a cluster-munitions strike. Google Maps indicates that the zone includes parking garages and car-repair establishements.

We showed the videos filmed Feb. 28 in Kharkiv to Alan Barlow, chief of technical support unit at the Conflict Armament Research group (CAR). Regarding Video #3, filmed near the shopping centre, he said the video “clearly shows a series of small explosions in close proximity to each other… I would assess that this is the result of a submunition (cluster bomb) strike.”

We were able to verify another video, Video #4, which shows the same strike from a different angle.

Trajectory leads to Russia

Our team next attempted to determine where the rockets came from, tracing a line from where the tail section was found in Vasylia Stusa street (video #1) to the strike site near the Equator shopping centre to the northeast (video #2). Extending the line further to the northeast of the city indicates a path coming from Russia, whose border is 31 km northeast of the shopping centre.

Trajectory projected by the France 24 Observers team, extending a line backwards from the location of a rocket tail section over the site where cluster munitions were released toward the source of the launch. © Google Earth Pro

Michael Sheldon, a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, traced the same line as our team, and a second line from another strike further west in the city on Feb. 28. The two lines met at a point 40 km northeast of Kharkiv, 8 km inside Russian territory (see tweet below). Sheldon obtained a satellite image showing the same location one day earlier, on Feb. 27. The satellite image shows a group of Russian vehicles with a plume of smoke from an apparent rocket launch heading in the direction of Kharkiv.

At one of these locations, you could even see a smoke cloud from a recently fired MLRS, leading in the direction of Kharkiv. pic.twitter.com/HxMI8rDDAx

— Michael Sheldon (@Michael1Sheldon) March 1, 2022

The first image in this tweet shows the point where the trajectories of two rockets fired on Kharkiv, Ukraine Feb. 28 meet, 10km inside the territory of Russia. The second images shows a satellite image taken the previous day, Feb. 27, on which a plume of smoke from a rocket launch is visible.

The NGO Human Rights Watch has also documented the use of 9M55K rockets containing cluster munitions in Kharkiv Feb. 28, saying the weapons killed at least three civilians. Amnesty International came to similar conclusions, saying three such attacks killed a total of nine civilians.

Cluster munitions used in Ukraine since 2014

Online investigators Bellingcat have also documented the use of cluster munitions in the current conflct since Feb. 25.

These remains of rocket motors from BM-30 multiple rocket launcher rockets have been documented in various civilian areas, and considering these are usually associated with cluster munition use it raises concerns of cluster munitions being used by Russia in civilian areas. pic.twitter.com/zNstU53KoQ

— Eliot Higgins (@EliotHiggins) February 25, 2022

Human Rights Watch documented the use of cluster munitions by Ukrainian government forces in the Donbass region in 2014. Neither Ukraine nor Russia has signed the convention banning their use.

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