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Tajikistan: Regional Land-Mine Conference Starting In Dushanbe

The Tajik government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are sponsoring a two-day regional conference, starting today in Dushanbe, on the problem of land mines in Central Asia.

Prague, 15 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- It has been 6 1/2 years since the signing of the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production, and Transfer of Antipersonnel Mines in December 1997. More than 140 states have formally accepted the convention since then.

And yet, it is estimated that every 20 minutes around the world, someone dies or is injured by a land mine.

The goal of the two-day regional conference on land mines, which opened today in the Tajik capital Dushanbe, is to focus attention on the problem as it relates to Central Asia and to encourage regional states that have not ratified the treaty to do so as soon as possible.

To date, Tajikistan -- which is cosponsoring the conference along with the United Nations Development Program -- as well as Afghanistan and Turkmenistan have ratified the Ottawa agreement.

At the end of March, Tajikistan destroyed its last stocks of antipersonnel mines, fulfilling its treaty obligation in this respect although many more mines -- dating from the country's civil-war days -- remain in the field. Turkmenistan says it has destroyed more than 700,000 land mines.

Afghanistan's Ambassador to Tajikistan Daoud Panshiri told RFE/RL about the damage land mines have caused in his country.

"Afghanistan is one of the countries which has had many victims because of [land mines]," Panshiri said. "As far as precise statistics show, over the last two decades of wars and conflicts, we had an average of 300 victims per month from antipersonnel mines and other kind of mines."

But several countries in the region, including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, have yet to ratify the treaty. Uzbekistan is of special concern to anti-mine campaigners, as the country began laying new mines in the summer of 2000 along its border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a bid to stop Islamic militants from infiltrating its territory.

Since the summer of 2000, the Uzbek mines have claimed many innocent victims and apparently not a single militant, according to Johannes Chudoba of the United Nations mission in Dushanbe. "The estimates are that in Tajikistan, there have been about 70 people killed so far and some 65 very badly injured just in the northern part of the country," Chudoba said.

According to Chudoba, the problem is that the mines have been laid in border areas that are often poorly demarcated, amid a local population dependent on grazing livestock -- a combination that leads to frequent tragedies.

"The border is not very clearly marked, so they may well be on Uzbek territory, but as the population in this region is largely rural and largely depends on livestock for their livelihoods," Chudoba said. "Shepherds also lead their flocks to these areas and sometimes inadvertently possibly even cross the border and thus step on mines."

Until recently, Uzbekistan had refused to participate in regional demining efforts. But this time, an Uzbek delegation is present at the Dushanbe conference and Chudoba sees this as a positive sign.

"There is an Uzbek representative at the conference and we do see this as a very positive sign," Chudoba said. "And there are further positive signs as well that there is gradually more of a readiness on both sides to work more closely on this issue."

Abdurakhman Azimov, head of Tajikistan's Committee for Border Security, told RFE/RL that for the first time, Uzbekistan has begun to actively cooperate in demining efforts along the two countries' common frontier.

"They have given us maps indicating the mine fields and also warning signs [for local residents]," Azimov said. "They gave all this to us recently and with the help of international organizations, demining work is going ahead."

The issue of accurate mine maps is particularly important, as they are the key to successful demining efforts. But since the countries that lay mines often consider these maps to be strategic secrets, it is difficult to get them to divulge their details.

Chudoba said this a problem on the Tajik-Afghan border, where Russian forces have laid mines, although the situation has recently been improving.

"The records of where the land mines were laid are incomplete and not reliable," Chudoba said. "And when they even exist, they are inaccessible. One of the examples are the Russian border forces on the Afghan border who are growing more and more cooperative, but it is fairly difficult to gain access to the mine maps."

Some 150 participants are taking part in the Dushanbe conference. Queen Noor of Jordan, a vocal advocate of the Ottawa Convention, is due to address the meeting tomorrow.