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Chechnya: Land Mines Seen As Continuing Scourge

  • Robert McMahon

http://gdb.rferl.org/494D1BD9-EA2E-459B-9F1E-FC6B3701EBB8_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/494D1BD9-EA2E-459B-9F1E-FC6B3701EBB8_mw800_mh600.jpg Experts in the global campaign to ban land mines are seeking to focus new attention on the impact of those weapons on Chechen civilians to try to prompt Russian government action. The president of an upcoming summit on land mines told RFE/RL that Chechnya -- where Russian forces continue to battle separatist rebels -- is the world's most mine-affected region. A prominent watchdog group, meanwhile, plans to single out Russia as a country of concern in an upcoming global report on land mines.

United Nations, 19 October 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is due to soon face renewed scrutiny over the problem of land mines in Chechnya amid signs of continuing hardship for civilians.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, a nongovernmental watchdog group, will feature a Chechen mine victim on the cover of its annual survey next month.

In addition, an Austrian diplomat guiding a treaty to ban land mines is urging states to engage with Moscow to change its policy on the weapons.

Wolfgang Petritsch will preside over next month's summit in Nairobi, Kenya, of states-parties to the treaty banning land mines. He told RFE/RL in a recent interview that the proliferation of land mines in civilian areas in war-ravaged Chechnya is a major concern.

"Chechnya is the most mine-affected region worldwide, and I think one needs to really put this on the political agenda when one speaks with the government in Moscow, to point out how important it would be really to Mr. [President Vladimir] Putin to accept assistance, support, to become a member of the land-mine community, so to speak, because it is not just the rebels who are suffering. Usually civilians, children, women who do the daily chores -- those are the main victims of land mines everywhere and particularly in Chechnya, in such a dirty war," Petritsch said.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines said in its report last year that more people were killed or injured by land mines in Chechnya than anywhere else in the world. The group -- which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize -- said the number of victims totaled nearly 6,000 in 2002.

At the time, officials in the Moscow-appointed Chechen administration called the figure an exaggeration.

The coordinator of this year's report for the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Mary Wareham, says the figure may have been inflated because of difficulties in distinguishing between the victims of mines and other injuries in Chechnya. She says the number of mine victims in 2003 is in the hundreds instead of thousands, but that the problem remains grave.

Wareham says hundreds of thousands of mines have been deployed by Russian forces and that Chechen rebels also make heavy use of them. The mine action group is unaware of any humanitarian de-mining efforts, she says, since the nongovernmental group Halo Trust left the country at the end of 1999.

"We know that the Russian Army engages in mine clearance -- when they find a mine they'll clear it. But there's not anything systematic or sustained going on to try and get every mine out of the ground in particular areas where civilians are likely to walk around in. And that's what you need, is humanitarian mine clearance, not just military mine clearance. That's not going on in Chechnya, and that's a really big problem," Wareham says.

The public affairs office of Russia's mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to requests for comment. Russia, like the United States, China, India, and Pakistan, is not a member of a 1997 convention banning land mines.

Russia is a party to the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons but not the 1996 protocol on land mines, booby traps, and other devices.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) are among the few international agencies sponsoring mine-related projects in Chechnya. Their programs focus on victim assistance and education programs targeting children.

But Wareham says there are few efforts under way to foster socio-economic reintegration for Chechnya's many mine victims.

"There's a real lack of resources. Nobody is spending any money dealing with the problem there at the moment, and that's one reason why the International Campaign to Ban Landmines wants to draw attention to the plight of Chechnya when it comes to the land-mine issue," Wareham says.

The cover of the campaign's annual report -- to be released 18 November -- will feature Umar Eskiev, a Chechen boy who was 13 years old when he stepped on a mine on his way home from a market in Grozny two years ago. The boy's left leg was amputated, but like other mine victims, he is still expected to provide for his family.

Petritsch, who formerly was the international community's high representative in Bosnia, says Chechnya's mine problem must be elevated to the political level. He stresses that as more countries embrace a total ban on mines, there is less likelihood they can be used by rebel groups.

"Land mines are called weapons of the poor man, so all the rebel movements are, of course, interested in getting their hands on land mines. Again, [that's] the reason why this is a ban. We want to eliminate the existence of land mines altogether so that they cannot fall into rebel hands," Petritsch says.

The Nairobi summit is to adopt a plan of action calling for a series of steps to promote mine clearance, the destruction of stockpiles, victim assistance, and universal acceptance of a land-mine ban.

There are 143 states-parties to the Ottawa Convention, as the land-mine treaty is known. They include mine-affected countries such as Afghanistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which have made progress in reducing mine accidents in the past two years.
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