As Islamic State began attacking the Syrian-Kurdish city of Kobani this fall, the bulk of the civilian population fled to Turkey under heavy fire from mortars, those ubiquitous tube weapons that inaccurately lob explosive shells.
When a mortar round exploded and injured a mother named Parchin and her two daughters, Parchin had to carry the children to safety, according to Stars and Stripes. “Her seven-year-old was then sent to Turkey and died there,” the newspaper stated.
Accounts of injured and killed civilians—particularly children—are a distressing and predictable result of mortars’ spread in conflicts around the world.
The inexpensive, explosive-hurling weapons are often small enough for soldiers to carry on their backs. Bigger models can rush into battle aboard pickup trucks. It takes only a little training for even the most amateur soldier to fire a mortar, although firing one accurately requires great skill.
By accident and by design, mortars mostly kill civilians. More than 90 percent of the time, the tube weapons’ victims are noncombatants, according to a new report by the non-profit group Action on Armed Violence.
According to the report, manufactured explosive weapons inflicted more than 25,300 civilian casualties between 2011 and 2013. Mortars are responsible for the largest portion, killing or wounding 4,719 people.
Mortars’ victims included Syrians, Pakistanis, Afghans and Africans from several countries. Syrians make up the largest share of total casualties by a large margin—11,635, compared to second-deadliest Libya with 2,661 noncombatants hurt or killed.
Mortars have proliferated widely and fast, as they’re one of the few ways inexperienced, impoverished rebel groups can provide fire support to their front-line fighters. Tube weapons are equally useful as terror weapons, lobbing explosives into markets and neighborhoods.
The weapons are typically so inaccurate that mortar crews risk accidentally killing civilians even when they’re not trying to do so.
During one 2009 battle in an Afghan village, American troops retreated after a Taliban ambush, because firing back with their mortars might have killed innocent villagers.
Indeed, mortars are becoming less accurate as they proliferate. In Syria, the various rebel factions mostly use Soviet-made mortars they captured from the regime. But opposition workshops also churn out hundreds of homemade mortars of questionable quality and precision.
For ammunition, the rebels have largely relied on 120-millimeter M62 and 60-millimeter M73 mortar rounds, which Saudi Arabia acquired and supplied to opposition fighters beginning in December 2012.
Not surprisingly, the Croatian M73 rounds also appeared in the Islamic State propaganda magazine Islamic State News in June. A photo depicted an Islamic State fighter training with the rounds near the Syrian city of Homs.
But rebels aren’t the only ones using mortars in populated areas. Governments often deploy mortars in place of air strikes, AOAV noted.
Considering how dangerous they are, the United States considers Islamic State’s mortars to be prime targets. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1, American warplanes bombed a mortar position along with 12 other targets near Mosul in Iraq, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command.
In its bombing reports, the Pentagon also makes repeated references to U.S. planes attacking “heavy weapons”—possibly mortars.