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Returnees To Kobani Face Threat From Booby Traps, Unexploded Ordnance


A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of Kobani after Islamic State militants had been pushed out of the town earlier this year.

A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of Kobani after Islamic State militants had been pushed out of the town earlier this year.

The Islamic State (IS) group may be have been expelled from their town, but Syrian Kurds returning home to Kobani are still facing a deadly challenge from the extremist militants: unexploded ordnance and booby traps left behind in civilian homes.

Fighters from the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militias, backed by U.S.-led air strikes and assisted by Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen, pushed Islamic militants out of Kobani in January.

Kobani was once home to around 200,000 people, most of whom fled across the border to Turkey when IS militants attacked, besieged, and invaded the town.

With the militants gone, Kobani's residents began going back home. By the end of March, it was estimated that around 40,000 people had returned to the town.

But Kobani's returnees found the battle to reclaim their town from IS had left their homes in ruins.

Kurdish officials estimate that almost 1,200 buildings in Kobani were destroyed and over 3,000 were damaged in the battle to expel IS militants from the town.

A greater danger for returning civilians, however, are the booby traps and unexploded ordnance left behind after the siege, including in civilian homes all over the town.

Experts from the Danish NGO DanChurchAid (DCA) are embarking on a new mission to help clear the unexploded booby traps and land mines from the town, to enable civilians to return home.

Richard MacCormac, the head of DCA's Humanitarian Mine Action program, told RFE/RL via email on April 10 that his team have been in Kobani for a preliminary assessment, before deploying there for clearance operations.

MacCormac said that contamination in Kobani varies across the town.

"On the northwestern side the chief threat is unexploded expended ordnance -- unexploded mortars, and so forth. In central and western areas, there are booby traps, typically consisting of items of expended ordnance or explosives in makeshift containers, furnished with a detonator and a primitive firing mechanism," MacCormac said.

While MacCormac said that he could not take a position on who laid the devices nor could he explain why anyone would put booby traps in civilian homes.

"What is not beyond me is to say, explicitly and forcefully, that this kind of device is inherently indiscriminate, and that placing it in the homes of people trying to return home is a completely unacceptable attack on civilians," MacCormac told RFE/RL.

Numerous Casualties

The booby traps and other unexploded devices have already claimed the lives of a number of civilians who have returned to Kobani after the routing of IS.

"Our understanding is that numerous civilians have, sadly, been killed by these devices. MSF [Doctors Without Borders] reports over 60 casualties, the Kobani Reconstruction Board likewise has over 50, and there are numerous claims that there are 10 or more explosions in the [canton] (ie, Kobani and the surrounding several hundred villages) every day," MacCormac said.

In March, Nasan Ahmed, the Health Minister for the Kobani canton, one of three self-declared autonomous Kurdish regions in northern Syria, said that around 40 people had been killed by mines and booby traps in Kobani since IS was expelled from the town. Dozens more had been wounded, Ahmed told the Kurdish news website Rudaw.

While DCA has seen booby traps before in other parts of the world, including a device found in Angola recently that was a deadly relic from a long-finished war, MacCormac says that the scale of the problem in Kobani is "extraordinary, and a real threat to life."

DCA's mine clearance mission in Kobani was funded by a recent grant from the Danish Foreign Ministry, according to DCA spokesman Nikolaj Søndergaard.

In addition to the threat of booby traps and unexploded mines, Kobani's returnees also fear the spread of disease from the remains of dead militants that are still strewn across the town.

A recent video report by the independent Syrian press agency ARA News said that, while local authorities have carried out some cleanup work to remove the corpses of IS militants from the streets of the city, for example, some people in the town are concerned that human remains left in Kobani could threaten the health of residents, particularly with summer approaching.

Kurdish officials in Syria have also warned that some of the dead bodies of IS militants may be booby trapped.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena

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