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Albania: Kosovo Land-Mine Legacy Still Scars Territory

Albanian authorities say the international community has failed to adequately address the problem of some 1,400 hectares of ground riddled with land mines left by the Yugoslav Army during the Kosovo crisis. Over the last three years, incidents with land mines in northeast Albania have accounted for nearly 20 percent of all injuries stemming from mines and other undetonated ordnance left over from Kosovo.

Tirana, 19 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- During the 1998-99 Kosovo crisis, Serb military and paramilitary forces laid large numbers of land mines along Kosovo's border with northeast Albania. NATO air raids also left numerous munitions scattered on Albanian territory.

Now, Albanian authorities and officials from the United Nations Development Program say the international community has not done enough to address the lingering threat of unexploded mines and other ordnance on Albanian territory. They say demining efforts have been directed almost exclusively at post-crisis Kosovo, and not at Albania, where an estimated 1,400 hectares of land remain contaminated with explosives.

In 1999, Albanian troops and international consultants identified the contaminated area as stretching along 120 kilometers of border territory, reaching from the northern town of Tropoja farther south to Shishtavec in the Kukes district.

Since then, nearly 200 incidents with land mines have been reported in the area. Albanian authorities say they expected a more active response from the international community in addressing this problem.

Luan Rama is the Albanian minister of defense. He said his country has met all its international obligations in requesting assistance with land-mine clearance. "On 29 February 2000, Albania signed and ratified the Ottawa Treaty banning antipersonnel mines and demilitarized its land-mine industry. And from April 2002 to the present, we have fully destroyed the entire stock of antipersonnel mines, two years before the deadline [states that sign the Ottawa Treaty are obliged to destroy their land mines within four years]. But regardless of the efforts made by committed antipersonnel-mine professionals and the support of several loyal donors, financing and assistance for this antimining activity has been sporadic, resulting in low demining figures," Rama said.

Rama claimed that during the Kosovo crisis, NATO asked Albanian forces to withdraw from its border territory in order to avoid confrontation with Serb forces. Albania's compliance, he said, left its border riddled with land mines that Western organizations have done little to address. "During the Kosovar crisis, Albania was asked to pull back its armed forces 10 kilometers from the border with Kosovo, and it was forbidden from preventing the violation of its sovereignty -- the mining process and the attacks against its territory by the Yugoslav armed forces. Currently, demining efforts involve mined fields along the Albanian-Kosovo border in the districts of Kukes, Has, and Tropoja. It has now been acknowledged that none of these mined fields has been registered -- a fact that represents a flagrant violation of the Geneva conventions. We should add that there is unexploded ordnance in these areas. The spoiling of this territory with mines and unexploded ordnance is not a consequence of actions by the Albanian people. And this should be stressed in pointing out the international community's moral obligation to assist Albania in solving this problem," Rama said.

The Albanian government credits various donors with assisting small-scale mine clearance. Germany's Help! International humanitarian group is working in Qafe Morine in the Tropoja district; the Swiss Federation for Mine Action and RONCO have carried out clearance projects in Kukes and Has. Combined, these operations have cleared fewer than 50 hectares over the past two years, just 3 percent of the total affected area. Defense Minister Rama said that by comparison, 90 percent of mined fields in Kosovo had been cleared by October of last year. "In a significant contrast with Kosovo, Albania has gotten very little international assistance, besides the recognition of the dimension of the problem resulting directly from the Kosovar crisis. This situation persists even now. From 1999 to date, 197 incidents have taken place [in Albania's mined territory], resulting in 211 mutilations and 25 deaths," Rama said.

The UN Development Program, which aims to broaden demining efforts in Albania, said some success has been achieved in the area of victim assistance. With support from the International Trust Fund for Demining and Mine Victims Assistance, a total of 27 Albanians injured by exploding mines have been fitted with prosthetics and are undergoing rehabilitation therapy in Slovenia.