Dozens of Bucha civilians were killed by metal darts from Russian artillery | Ukraine
Dozens of civilians who died during the Russian occupation of the Ukrainian city of Bucha were killed by tiny metal arrows from shells of a type fired by Russian artillery, forensic doctors have said.
Pathologists and coroners who are carrying out postmortems on bodies found in mass graves in the region north of Kyiv, where occupying Russian forces have been accused of atrocitiessaid they had found small metal darts, called fléchettes, embedded in people’s heads and chests.
“We found several really thin, nail-like objects in the bodies of men and women and so did others of my colleagues in the region,” Vladyslav Pirovskyi, a Ukrainian forensic doctor, told the Guardian. “It is very hard to find those in the body, they are too thin. The majority of these bodies come from the Bucha-Irpin region.”
Independent weapons experts who reviewed pictures of the metal arrows found in the bodies, seen by the Guardian, confirmed that they were fléchettes, an anti-personnel weapon widely used during the first world war.
These small metal darts are contained in tank or field gun shells. Each shell can contain up to 8,000 flechettes. Once fired, shells burst when a timed fuse detonates and explodes above the ground.
Fléchettes, typically between 3cm and 4cm in length, release from the shell and disperse in a conical arch about 300m wide and 100m long. On impact with a victim’s body, the dart can lose rigidity, bending into a hook, while the arrow’s rear, made of four fins, often breaks away causing a second wound.
According to a number of witnesses in Buchafléchette rounds were fired by Russian artillery a few days before forces withdrew from the area at the end of March.
Svitlana Chmut, a resident of Bucha, told the Washington Post she had found several nailed on her car.
Although human rights groups have long sought a ban on fléchette shells, the munitions are not prohibited under international law. However, the use of imprecise lethal weapons in densely populated civilian areas is a violation of humanitarian law.
According to Neil Gibson, a weapons expert at the UK-based Fenix Insight group, who has reviewed the photos of the fléchettes found in Bucha, the metal darts came from a 122mm 3Sh1 artillery round, in use by Russian artillery.
“Another uncommon and rarely seen projectile,” said Gibson on Twitter. “This time it’s the Russian equivalent of the US ‘Beehive’ series of Anti-personnel (APERS) projectiles … It operates like a true shrapnel projectile, but is filled with fléchettes and a wax binder.”
Fléchettes have been used as ballistic weapons since the first world war. Dropped by the then-novel airplanes to attack infantry, the lethal metal darts were able to pierce helmets. They were not widely used during the second world war, but re-emerged in the Vietnam war, when the US employed a version of fléchette loads, packed into plastic cups.
“Fléchettes are an anti-personnel weapon designed to penetrate dense vegetation and to strike a large number of enemy soldiers,” according to Amnesty International. “They should never be used in built-up civilian areas.”
“You don’t have to be an arms expert to understand that Russia ignored the rules of war in Bucha,” Bucha’s elder, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said. “Bucha was turned into a Chechen safari, where they used landmines against civilians.”
Russian forces captured Bucha, 18.5 miles (30km) north-west of Kyiv, after fierce fighting a few days after the invasion began in February. They were given an order to retreat at the end of March and in the subsequent days, mass graves containing the bodies of hundreds of people who had apparently been massacred came to light.
A team of 18 experts from the forensic department of France’s national gendarmerie, alongside a team of forensic investigators from Kyiv, have started documenting the terror inflicted on civilians during the month-long occupation.
“We are seeing a lot of mutilated (disfigured) bodies,” said Pirovsky. “A lot of them had their hands tied behind their backs and shots in the back of their heads. There were also cases with automatic gunfire, like six to eight holes on the back of victims. And we have several cases of cluster bombs’ elements embedded in the bodies of the victims.”
Evidence collected by the Guardian during a visit to Bucha, Hostomel and Borodianka, and reviewed by independent weapons experts, showed that Russian troops used cluster munitions – which are banned in much of the world – and powerful unguided bombs in populated areas, which have destroyed at least eight civilian buildings .
Fléchettes are rarely used in modern warfare, other than periodically by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), which deployed them in military operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding civilians.
In March 2008, a Palestinian journalist and videographer with Reuters, Fadel Shana, was killed by fléchettes from a shell fired by an Israeli tank. X-rays later showed metal darts embedded in Shana’s chest, legs and flak jacket, which was not armored.