92 nations sign cluster-bomb ban; US, Russia don't

OSLO, Norway (AP) -- An Afghan teenager who lost both legs in a cluster bomb explosion helped persuade his country to change its stance and join nearly 100 nations in signing a treaty Wednesday banning the disputed weapons.

Afghanistan was initially reluctant to join the pact - which the United States and Russia have refused to support - but agreed to after lobbying by victims maimed by cluster munitions, including 17-year-old Soraj Ghulan Habib. The teen, who uses a wheelchair, met with his country's ambassador to Norway, Jawed Ludin, at a two-day signing conference in Oslo.

"I explained to the ambassador my situation, and that the people of Afghanistan wanted a ban," Habib, who said he was crippled by a cluster bomb seven years ago, told The Associated Press.

Speaking through an interpreter, Habib said the ambassador called Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who agreed to change his stance on the treaty.

"Today is a historic day," Habib declared.

Afghanistan's reversal even surprised the activists who are urging countries to join the pact against cluster munitions, which have been widely criticized for maiming and killing civilians.

"It is just so huge, to get this turnaround. Afghanistan was under a lot of pressure from the United States," said Thomas Nash, coordinator of The Cluster Bomb Coalition. "If Afghanistan can withstand the pressure, so can others."

Australian activist Daniel Barty said the Afghan ambassador appeared to start changing his mind after meeting Habib at a reception Tuesday.

The U.S., Russia and other countries refusing to sign the treaty say cluster bombs have legitimate military uses, such as repelling advancing troop columns.

Cluster bomblets are packed by the hundreds into artillery shells, bombs or missiles, which scatter them over vast areas. Some fail to explode immediately. The unexploded bomblets can then lie dormant for years until they are disturbed, often by children attracted by their small size and bright colors.

The group Handicap International says 98 percent of cluster-bomb victims are civilians, and 27 percent are children.

Organizers hoped that more than 100 of the 125 countries represented will have signed by the end of the conference on Thursday. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said 92 countries did so on Wednesday.

The treaty must be ratified by 30 countries before it takes effect.

His country, which began the drive to ban cluster bombs 18 months ago, was the first to sign, followed by Laos and Lebanon, both hard-hit by the weapons.

Britain, formerly a major stockpiler of cluster munitions, also signed the treaty, which Foreign Secretary David Miliband said showed that a NATO country can defend itself without cluster weapons.

Miliband said he would urge President-elect Barack Obama's administration to reconsider the U.S. stance.

The Bush administration says a comprehensive ban would hurt world security.

"Although we share the humanitarian concerns of states signing the (accord), we will not be joining them," the U.S. State Department said in a statement. "Such a general ban on cluster munitions will put the lives of our military men and women, and those of our coalition partners, at risk."

In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said his government had decided not to join the treaty, and instead believes the issue of cluster bomb use should be addressed through the U.N. Convention on Conventional Weapons.

The anti-cluster bomb campaign gathered momentum after Israel's monthlong war against Hezbollah in 2006, when it scattered up to 4 million bomblets across Lebanon, according to U.N. figures.

"In southern Lebanon, for more than two years, children and the elderly have been victimized (by cluster munitions)," Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Saloukh said.

Activists hoped the treaty would pressure non-signers into shelving the weapons, as many did with land mines after a 1997 treaty banning them.

"The cluster bomb treaty will save countless lives by stigmatizing a weapon that kills civilians even after the fighting ends," said Steve Goose, arms director of Human Rights Watch.

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Associated Press writer Shawna Ohm in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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