The US has been forced to broadcast radio messages warning the people of Afghanistan not to confuse food parcels with cluster bombs that are also being dropped over parts of the country.
In an embarrassing admission of the danger posed by such weapons, the US has warned that from a distance the two items could be mistaken – both are roughly the same size and both are bright yellow
"Attention, noble Afghan people," starts the message broadcast in both Pashto and Dari. "As you know, the coalition countries have been air dropping daily humanitarian rations for you. The food ration is enclosed in yellow plastic bags. They come in the shape of rectangular or long squares. The food inside the bags is halal and very nutritional.
"In areas away from where food has been dropped, cluster bombs will also be dropped. The colour of these bombs is also yellow. All bombs will explode when they hit the ground, but in some special circumstances some of the bombs will not explode."
A Pentagon spokesman yesterday confirmed that the broadcasts were being carried out but denied there was any embarrassment to the US. "We have never had to bomb and drop food at the same time in such close proximity," he said. "We are trying to alleviate any possible mistakes."
Cluster bombs are canisters which break open on impact with the ground to scatter, smaller so-called "bomblets". It is estimated that these bomblets have a dud rate of about 5 per cent and can lie buried "live" in the ground for years until something detonates them. They have been condemned by various humanitarian organisations for the indiscriminate way they can injure civilians.
The United Nations has already expressed concerns about using the weapons in Afghanistan. Last night, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said: "The food drops are not the most efficient way of delivering food. None the less, in a situation where there is no food coming in, you cannot be too choosy. We have urged that any military action should take into account the civilian population and that it should be as least harmful as possible to this population."
While Britain has not dropped cluster bombs in Afghanistan, its position on their use is no different to that of the US. The Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, yesterday told the Commons that they had been used in Afghanistan on a "limited number of occasions against the particular military threat of armoured vehicles".
Responding to a call from the Labour MP Ann Clwyd to pressurise the Americans to stop using the bombs, Mr Hoon added: "They are not used against the civilian populations and the number of circumstances in which they have been used in Afghanistan has been extremely limited. They are not, either, in any way comparable with land mines."
Ms Clwyd later said: "It is known very well that cluster bombs are, unfortunately, anti-personnel mines as well. They can destroy innocent civilians in much the same way as land mines."
The radio message is being broadcast by the US using specially designed EC-130E Commando Solo planes bristling with electronic equipment to broadcast messages as well as jam other transmissions. It informs the Afghan population: "In future cluster bombs will not be dropped in areas where food is air dropped.
"However, we do not wish to see an innocent civilian mistake the bombs for food bags and take one away believing that it might contain food. We would like you to take extra care and not to touch yellow-coloured objects."