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Thousands of miniature PFM
Each plastic antipersonnel mine, known as PFM-1, Lepestok (“Petal”), Butterfly or Green Parrot, contains 37 grams of explosive, enough to blow off a foot. They became notorious after the Soviets used them extensively in Afghanistan, often injuring curious children. There have been reports butterfly mines use in the current conflict – see our previous report here — but little evidence. The volume of images and videos from Donetsk suggest a definite, deliberate, large-scale attack on a civilian area. News reports mention people injured but there have been no numbers or reports of deaths yet.
The mines seem to have been delivered by a Uragan (“Hurricane”) 220mm multiple rocket launcher, One image shows a mine container which failed to open properly. One rocket delivers 312 mines, and the launch vehicles fires rockets in salvoes of sixteen, scattering thousands of mines over an area over half a mile across, leaving one mine every thirty feet or so.
The mines are sensitive to pressure, either a single contact such as being trodden on or the cumulative effect of being handled. They are often picked up by people not realizing what they are. A video from Donestsk shows a woman taking one out of her handbag — she had picked it up show workmates, assuming it was bomb shrapnel.
The mines are relatively easy to spot, though they may lie hidden in grass. But dealing with this number of mines in a heavily populated area is a challenge. A local news report shows a bomb-disposal crew using a plastic water bottle cut in half on the end of a pole to scoop up mines into a heap so several can be blown up together. Another team uses a road roller to run over the mines and explode them.
Some soldiers not trained in bomb disposal adopt more casual, more hazardous approaches to demining. Videos show them setting off mines by throwing tires or bricks on to them, or even hitting a mine with a long stick. This is possible because, unlike many types of mine, the PFM-1 is purely a blast weapon and does not throw out shrapnel. There is (relatively) little risk to someone two meters away, but messing with explosives is always dangerous and experts advise against it.
Some of the mines are also in inaccessible locations; a bomb disposal team located several on the flat roof of a shop. They could remain there for some time before strong wind or rain disturbs them and produce enough cumulative force to trigger an explosion. In Afghanistan, butterfly mines have maimed people after lying inert for years.
Ukraine became a state party to the Mine Ban Treaty in 2006, but still has stockpiles of millions of butterfly mines. Russia also has the mines and has not joined the treaty, but is still bound by humanitarian law which outlaws deliberate attacks on civilian population with no military objective. This was purely a terror attack, intended to frighten and inure the civilian population, with no military justification.
Human Rights Watch has closely monitored the war in Ukraine and documented previous instances of landmine use. But at present they cannot say who is responsible.
“We are not commenting on these specific allegations at this point since it is impossible to independently verify or attribute the reporting,” HRW Senior Researcher Mark Hiznay told Forbes. “We note that similar allegations have sporadically surfaced from Russian sources about the use of this weapon since the beginning of the war. “
HRWs previous report on these allegations concluded in June that there was “no credible information that Ukrainian government forces have used antipersonnel mines,” while they also reported that Russia had used POM-3s, a different types of air-dropped anti-personnel mine, in the Kharkiv region.
Determining whether the attack was carried out by Ukrainian forces, or whether it was a ‘false flag’ attack or even friendly fire by Russian forces or local militia as some have suggested is likely to be difficult. While munitions often have serial numbers or manufacturer’s codes stamped on them indicating the date and place of production – and markings can be seen on some of the mines – this may not be conclusive. In any case, deminers are usually more concerned with safety than the challenge of gathering forensic evidence.
“We clear landmines to make local people safe and we mostly do so in ways that render them unidentifiable,” a spokesman from demining NGO HALO Trust told Forbes.
There may also be evidence in the form of radar or other tracks of rocket launches in the area. These may show the location that the rockets were fired from and so indicate which side was responsible if not the actual unit. As in the case of the missile that downed Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 such evidence is likely to be contested. But it might still be possible to bring the perpetrators to justice – eventually – and discourage such attacks on civilians in future.