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World: UN Marks First International Day For Land-Mine Awareness

A land-mine blast in Pakistan earlier this year (epa) The United Nations General Assembly has declared today the first International Day for Mine Awareness. The move is meant to highlight up to 20,000 deaths or serious injuries caused each year by land mines left over from conflicts in more than 80 countries around the world. One of the most-affected countries is Afghanistan.

PRAGUE, April 4, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The UN says deaths and injuries caused by land mines kill or maim between 15,000 and 20,000 people each year around the world. One in five of those victims is a child.

In Afghanistan, 70 to 100 people are killed or injured each month by the land mines or unexploded ordnance that was scattered across the country during nearly three decades of war.

Up to 100,000 Afghans are thought to have been killed or injured by mines and unexploded ammunition since 1979.

Working Together

Thousands of demining experts from charity organizations like The HALO Trust are working with the Afghan government and UN efforts like the Afghan New Beginnings Program. Their task is to locate, collect, and destroy land mines and unexploded ammunition.

The sound of an enormous explosion echoes across the landscape as an enormous plume of smoke rises high into the sky. The HALO Trust has detonated another cache of mines it has put into a deep pit for demolition. Fared Hamayoon directs the activities of The HALO Trust in Afghanistan.

"We are actually marking the International Mine Action Day," he says. "We are in this place called Deh Sabz -- which is a district [north] of Kabul. We destroyed 368 antipersonnel mines that we have collected in cooperation with the [Afghan] Defense Ministry and the Afghan New Beginnings Program from the stockpiles."

Nearly 3,000 communities in Afghanistan -- with a total of more than 4 million people -- are affected by land mines. That has led the UN to rank Afghanistan with Cambodia and Colombia as the three countries with the highest number of land-mine victims.

A Land-Mine Free World?

The UN says it is possible to rid the world of land mines within years rather than decades as previously thought. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says the goal is achievable if clearing efforts by donors, the general public, and governments continue.

In 2003, Afghanistan signed the so-called Ottawa treaty on banning land mines. That document commits Afghanistan to clearing all minefields by 2013 and destroying all stockpiles of weapons from demilitarized militia groups by the end of next year.

Nurullah Khan is a former mujahedin fighter who lost his leg in a land-mine explosion six years ago while he was fighting against Afghanistan's Taliban regime. He says the land-mine problem in Afghanistan is urgent and critical.

"As long as there are mines in Afghanistan, we are in danger," he says. "Children are at risk. And people from abroad who aren't familiar with minefields feel in danger here."

Dr. Najmuddin lost both of his legs in a mine blast when he was 18-years old. Now he is a doctor who helps other mine victims at an orthopedic hospital in Kabul run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Afghans Suffer Badly

"My message to all the world -- to those who are making [land mines], to those who are trafficking [land mines], to those who are sending [land mines] to countries, and to those who are planting mines," he says. "Stop this very bad fight against humanity."

The work of the Kabul Orthopedic Hospital includes the making of artificial legs for use by Afghan mine victims. The sheer number of Afghan mine victims keeps craftsmen at the workshop busy every day.

Up to 100,000 Afghans are thought to have been killed or injured by mines and unexploded ammunition since 1979. And there are new victims every day -- including a small Afghan child being treated on April 3 who was still in shock from a land-mine explosion.

The UN says much demining work also remains to be done in Iraq, Angola, Sudan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Tajikistan has problems with land mines along its borders with both Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Parwiz Maulonkulov is the director of the Center for Land Mine Problems in Dushanbe. He says 500 people have been killed or injured by land mines in Tajikistan since 1992.

Maulonkulov says seven Tajiks were killed and 12 were injured by land mines last year. He says his group has helped clear 183 square kilometers of land during the last two years and plans to clear another 45 kilometers in the near future.

The UN says Chechnya also has a serious land-mine problem. The UN says Russian troops were still laying mines around their installations and security checkpoints in Chechnya last year. But Russian UN Ambassador Andrei Denisov has denied those claims. Denisov says that if land mines are still being laid in Chechnya, it is being done only by Chechen rebels.