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World: Land Mines Could Be History In A Decade

Washington, 4 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Land mines that kill and maim tens of thousands of people every year could become a thing of the past in little more than a decade, according to a new U.S. report.

The publication, "Hidden Killers," was compiled by the State Department, updating a 1994 version. It was released Thursday at a press conference.

The State Department's top official in charge of de-mining programs, Karl Inderfurth, told reporters the main new finding in the report is that the number of mines in the ground in some 60 countries is now believed to be between 60 and 70 million, not as many as 110 million landmines -- the estimate four years ago.

Inderfurth said in the early 1990s it was thought it would take generations to remove the mines.

But, in his words, "with the demining experience gained in the last four years, we now know that with a sustained international commitment, the problem can be solved in a reasonable period of time, indeed, we believe by the year 2010."

Inderfurth said the number of buried, unexploded anti-personnel landmines is still staggering. But the dramatically improved outlook for a mine-free world is possible because of more accurate surveys, better detection, and a more focused approach to the destruction of mines among other things.

He said "the best measure of the land mine problem is not the number of mines in the ground, but the number of innocent victims and the area of productive land rendered unusable by land mines."

By this measure, the report lists successes in de-mining efforts especially in Namibia, Cambodia and Nicaragua, and also in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

Presidential adviser on de-mining, Eric Newsom, who appeared with Inderfurth at the press conference, said the U.S. has been leading a de-mining program in Bosnia for more than three years and is making "real progress."

He said initially experts thought there could be up to six million mines in Bosnia. Now after a national survey, Newsom said "the number of landmines in Bosnia is much closer to one million ... probably somewhere between 750,000 and 1.2 million mines."

He said the U.S. has trained well over 800 Bosnians in de-mining techniques and helped equip local teams. He said dogs are used extensively in Bosnia to locate the mines and are recording notable success.

Inderfurth said dogs are as much as 300 percent more effective in sniffing out mine beds than manual mine clearance operations, especially in difficult terrain.

"The dog program in Afghanistan has been so successful that it serves as a model for other mine-affected countries," he said.

The report says the Taliban's increasing control over Afghanistan, as well as the end of the conflict in Bosnia, gave a significant boost to mine-clearing efforts.

According to Inderfurth, more mines now are coming out of the ground in those areas than are going in.

But the report still lists Afghanistan and Bosnia, as well as Croatia and Iraq among 12 countries considered to be the worst of 60 nations dangerously polluted by land mines.

It says on average, every year, 26,000 people are killed or crippled for life by land mines. The best prevention, according to the report is heightened public awareness of the danger and mobilization of the international community.

"Concerted international intervention does dramatically reduce the carnage of land mines to civilians," the report said.

Shortly before she died in a car crash a year ago, Princess Diana went to Africa to draw attention to the problem and rally support for an international campaign against land mines.

The State Department's Inderfurth said contributions from governments and private organizations to de-mining efforts are on the rise.

He said the U.S. this year is spending more than $80 million on de-mining programs in 23 countries and plans to extend training and equipment assistance to several more countries next year.