What are fléchettes and are they evidence of Russian war crimes?

Metal darts discovered by forensic doctors in bodies in Bucha mass graves

Ukrainian servicemen on the streets of Bucha
Ukrainian servicemen on the streets of Bucha
(Image credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)

Civilians who died during the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian town of Bucha were killed by small metal arrows fired by artillery, forensic doctors have said.

Known as fléchettes, The Guardian said the dart-shaped weapons have been found “embedded in people’s heads and chests” by pathologists and coroners who are carrying out post-mortems on the bodies found in mass graves in the region north of Kyiv.

“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 paper. “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.”

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‘Anti-personnel weapon’

Independent experts who reviewed images of the arrows retrieved from bodies in Bucha confirmed to The Guardian that they are fléchettes, French for “little darts”, an “anti-personnel weapon” used extensively during the First World War.

The “metal darts are contained in tank or field gun shells”, each of which “can contain up to 8,000 fléchettes”, the paper reported. “Once fired, shells burst when a timed fuse detonates and explodes above the ground”, spraying the arrows in all directions.

The area covered by a single shell can be the equivalent of “three football fields” in width, The Washington Post said. The shells are “primed to explode over infantry formations and spew projectiles in a conical pattern”.

According to The Economist, fléchettes were “invented in Italy in the early 1900s and adopted by all sides” during the First World War. The arrows “were typically 12cm long with fins for stability and were dropped from aircraft in canisters of tens or hundreds”.

“America then developed a new, more lethal generation in the 1950s, in a programme codenamed Lazy Dog,” the paper continued. The new and improved weapon “struck with the force of a bullet” and “had a good chance of killing anyone in the area”.

The US deployed this new generation of fléchettes during the Vietnam War, where “gruesome” and “apocryphal stories told of victims found nailed to trees”.

They are now “rarely used in modern warfare, other than periodically by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF)”, The Guardian said. The IDF has “deployed them in military operations in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, killing and wounding civilians”.

Their use made headlines in March 2008, when a Palestinian journalist with Reuters, Fadel Shana, was killed by fléchettes fired by an Israeli tank.

Svitlana Chmut, a resident of Bucha, told The Washington Post that she found several fléchettes nailed to her car following the Russian invasion. “If you look closely on the ground around my house, you will find a lot more of them,” she said.

War crimes

“Human rights groups have long sought a ban on fléchette shells”, The Guardian said, but they “are not prohibited under international law”. However, “the use of imprecise lethal weapons in densely populated civilian areas is a violation of humanitarian law”.

A spokesperson for Amnesty International said the weapons “should never be used in built-up civilian areas”, while Neil Gibson, a weapons expert at the UK-based Fenix Insight group, told the paper that they are an “uncommon and rarely seen projectile”.

Bucha’s mayor, Anatoliy Fedoruk, said: “You don’t have to be an arms expert to understand that Russia ignored the rules of war in Bucha. Bucha was turned into a Chechen safari, where they used landmines against civilians.”

They “kill and maim indiscriminately”, The Economist said, raising questions about how Russia would justify their deployment in a densely populated area.

Moscow “might have issued small numbers of flechette rounds for defensive purposes”, though it is “also possible the aim was simply to terrorise”.

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