Bucha civilians were killed by Russian metal darts: What are these World War I weapons?

A number of witnesses in Bucha said that fléchette rounds were fired by Russian artillery a few days before forces withdrew from the area at the end of March

File image showing a corpse of a civilian killed, before being transported to the morgue, in the cemetery in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, 6 April, 2022. AP

Dozens of civilians in Ukraine’s Bucha, which faced the worst of the alleged Russian atrocities, were killed by tiny metal arrows from shells of a type fired by Russian artillery, forensic experts have said.

According to a report by The Guardian, pathologists and coroners involved in postmortems on bodies found in mass graves in the region north of Kyiv said 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.”

Also read: ‘Deeply disturbing’: India condemns civilian killings in Ukraine’s Bucha at UNSC, backs call for independent probe

Independent weapons experts have since confirmed that the tiny nail-like objects are indeed fléchettes, an anti-personnel weapon widely used during the first world war.

What are fléchettes?

The small metal darts are generally contained in tank or field gun shells. According to the report, each shell can contain up to 8,000 fléchettes.

Typically 3-4cm in length, fléchettes that are capable of penetrating helmets release from the shell upon explosion in the air and disperse in an arch about 300m wide and 100m long.

After hitting a victim’s body, the dart loses rigidity, bending into a hook, while the arrow’s rear, made of four fins, often breaks away causing a second wound.

As per a report by the Washington Post, a number of witnesses in Bucha said that fléchette rounds were fired by Russian artillery a few days before forces withdrew from the area at the end of March.

Are fléchettes illegal weapons?

Even though human rights groups have sought a ban on fléchette shells, they are not prohibited under international law.

The use of imprecise lethal weapons in civilian areas, however, is a violation of humanitarian law.

The Guardian reported that the metal darts came from a 122mm 3Sh1 artillery round, citing Neil Gibson, a weapons expert at the UK-based Fenix Insight group.

The shells are an equivalent of the US ‘Beehive’ series of Anti-personnel (APERS) projectiles, operate like a true shrapnel projectile, but are filled with fléchettes.

During the first world war, fléchettes would be dropped by the then-novel airplanes to attack infantry. The lethal metal darts were able to pierce helmets.

The fléchettes were not widely used during WWII, but re-emerged in the Vietnam war.

Fléchettes have rarely been used in recent warfare, other than periodically by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), which deployed them in military operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding civilians, the Guardian reported.

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 armoured.

With inputs from agencies

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