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Wednesday, 10 May, 2000, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Angolan landmine crisis: David Shukman answers your questions

The United Nations is warning that new landmines are being deployed in Angola, adding to the estimated seven million already laid during two decades of civil war.

Many people have joined the campaign for an end to the use of landmines, including Diana, Princess of Wales who visited Angola three years ago during a ceasefire.

But as the civil war rages on, it will be hard for the clearance of mines to continue. Aid workers are worried about the next generation of Angolans, as more and more children fall victim to the landmines.

BBC World Affairs Correspondent, David Shukman has been reporting in Angola. Read his answers to your questions below.

Sarah Boahene, Ghana: I recently visited Angola and spoke with the Halo trust and MGM deminers. From what they told me, it is far from impossible to clear the landmines. Many have been cleared and will continue to be cleared. What I would like to ask is, how did you come to the conclusion it is impossible to clear the landmines?

David Shukman: I hope I never suggested that clearing mines was impossible. Much noble and effective has been carried out by many agencies - "giving land back to the people" as Care International describe it. The impression I wanted to convey was that of the desperation felt by all those involved in the aid community at seeing new mines being laid even as mine clearance projects are underway. HALO and MGM are absolutely right to carry on with their brave and valuable work, and HALO in particular has always stressed how the total number of landmines is almost certainly far lower than the UN estimates - perhaps tens of thousands not the millions suggested by the UN agencies. Nevertheless, demining experts wouldn't be human if they didn't feel some disappointment at the fact that both sides are still deploying landmines.

Ed Hopgood, Britain: How effective are charities such as MAG and how can their effectiveness be improved by people in Britain?

David Shukman: I only saw the HALO Trust deminers at work, and with extraordinary patience and skill they had cleared areas of farmland around housing near Kuito airport. It was a small project but clearly valuable to local people, and step by step this kind of work could make an ever greater impact. Charities could be helped in two ways - with financial support and by public pressure on the UN, key western governments and on the Angolan government and UNITA to bring the war to an end. Then the mine clearance work could carry on uninterrupted.

Khady Soukho Konaté, Sénégal: What is the position of the UN about landmines?

David Shukman: The UN regards landmines as one of the great scourges of modern warfare and believes the weapons prove especially debilitating and detrimental to ordinary civilians in Angola. The problem is that the laying of mines may be carried out for a military purpose but all too often it's civilians who suffer from them. UN officials see landmines as one of the great impediments to peace. The weapons paralyse the road network and block the return of refugees to their homes.

Roy R. Riggs, United States: Where are these landmines being made?

David Shukman: In many different places. Angola has mines made in Russia, South Africa, and Italy among other countries, but so many landmines have been produced worldwide that the important facts are who is selling weapons from existing stocks and who is delivering them. Obviously there is a lot of money to be made in this trade, some people are getting rich from it and it's business which is very hard to stop. UN sanctions are meant to prevent the UNITA rebels from getting fresh supplies of weapons including landmines but high prices always attract arms dealers and pilots prepared to undertake covert flights. I heard one reliable report of the government forces insisting that the mines cleared by an international charity were handed over to them - presumably so they could be re-used.

Joan Fola, USA: Why are the countries that are selling Angola killing tools not blocked from international relations?

David Shukman: Good question. Perhaps because those countries included some major powers. Russia recently sold tanks to Angola and until a year or so ago the United States provided weaponry to the Angolan armed forces as well, only stopping sales when Angola sent troops to the war in neighbouring Congo. It's hard to imagine those two countries being isolated over this issue. However, it's only when the major powers make a deliberate and sustained effort to bring both sides to the peace-table that there'll be any chance of an end to the war.

Tim Riley, United Kingdom: Why is it still what seems a largely manual (and highly dangerous process) of detecting land mines. Does technology not have anything to offer to detect mines (e.g. using sonar or x-rays)?

David Shukman: Some experts believe that sniffer dogs can provide a cheap and effective screening of suspect ground - I saw them being used by a US-sponsored charity in Mozambique. Others use metal detectors but these don't work when the soil has a high metal content. There are systems in development which would provide an airborne scanning of the ground - but they won't come cheap. Then there are armoured vehicles which can plough their way through the soil in safety. But these aren't always suitable for confined areas or small paths or close to houses. For the record, the HALO Trust experts in Kuito told me the most reliable way of being sure that land is genuinely made safe is by digging down to a depth of one foot and checking with the human eye. Perhaps the defence research establishments which devote so much effort to devising new weapons should be encouraged to change their focus to this task.

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See also:

26 Apr 00 | Africa
UN: Angola is on the brink
29 Jan 99 | Angola
Landmines: War's deadly legacy
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