An activist group accused Thailand of firing cluster shells into Cambodia during border clashes this year, becoming the first nation to use them since a treaty banning the munitions took effect eight months ago. A Thai government spokesman denied the charge.
The London-based Cluster Munition Coalition said Thailand's ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva confirmed the army had fired 155mm cluster shells into Cambodia in early February.
A news release from the coalition said the envoy's admission supported evidence its experts found in two investigations at the site.
Cluster munitions contain dozens or hundreds of small grenades or 'bomblets' that scatter over vast areas. Some can lie dormant for decades until disturbed, posing enormous danger to civilians. Because of their use during the Vietnam War, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia are among the most contaminated countries.
Thai Government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn said that the Thai ambassador acknowledged the military had used 155mm "Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munition" shells in self-defense, but that they were not necessarily cluster munitions, as the coalition had categorized them.
The shells can carry several different kinds of payloads, but the coalition's investigators found evidence that they were carrying anti-personnel devices, putting them clearly in the category of cluster munitions.
During the fighting, Thailand denied Cambodian claims that it used cluster munitions, an allegation made amid heavy propaganda by both countries.
The coalition's statement said the envoy justified their use as necessary to defend Thai forces with proportional attacks. The envoy, whom the coalition did not identify by name, was quoted as saying Cambodian forces fired rockets into civilian Thai areas.
Panitan added that Thailand was not changing its stance on cluster munitions, apparently referring to its announcement in 2008 hat it had no intention to use them in the future.
Neither Thailand nor Cambodia has joined the 108 other countries that signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions. It prohibits all use and production of cluster munitions, sets deadlines for their destruction and clearance of contaminated land, and obliges states to support survivors. Major powers like the U.S., Russia and China have also failed to sign the pact.
At least eight people were killed along the Thai-Cambodian border in several days of fighting with small arms and other weapons. The combat has subsided, but the countries have not resolved the underlying dispute over land near a landmark temple belonging to Cambodia.
The coalition said its investigators found parts of shells themselves and interviewed survivors of one explosion who identified the device as an M46 cluster submunition, a grenade which is often used as a payload of the 155mm shells, into which several dozen are packed. The two survivors each lost an arm in the explosion that killed two Cambodian policemen.
"It's appalling that any country would resort to using cluster munitions after the international community banned them," said the statement, quoting the group's director, Laura Cheeseman. "Thailand has been a leader in the global ban on anti-personnel mines, and it is unconscionable that it used banned weapons that indiscriminately kill and injure civilians in a similar manner."