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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Landmine threat to aid mission
Former Afghanistan-based aid worker Marcus George explains how the huge numbers of mines threatens the humanitarian effort inside the war-torn country.

More than 20 years of war in Afghanistan has left a terrible landmine legacy and now threatens to disrupt the drive to feed millions of starving people.

Aid agencies fear that the US food drops, which are being carried out in tandem with military strikes against selected targets, could force desperate Afghans to stray into danger areas in search of parcels.

Anti-personnel mine
Parts of Afghanistan are riddled with anti personnel mines
Medical agency Medecins Sans Frontiers, which operates in Afghanistan has said that drops of personal food are virtually useless and may even be dangerous.

The Director of Handicap International, Christopher Cushing, has said that air drops may inadvertently expose populations to the landmine danger.

To reduce the risk of the US transport planes being shot down by Taleban defence forces planes could be flying too high to make an accurate drop.

'No control'

"There's no real control of where the supplies are going to land," he said. "They may try to drop them upwind from refugee populations but will face difficulties to get it into that area.

During airdrops people run and want to get there very quickly ... They may not be as cautious as they normally would be

Handicap International director Christopher Cushing

"As a population moves towards them they may not know where all the safe areas are and could be exposed to landmines. When it rains, the mines, some of which look like hockey pucks, can get moved around.

"During airdrops people run and want to get there very quickly and there could be real fights. They may not be as cautious as they normally would be. The drops could be exposing them to greater risks.

"Local authorities could take some of the food destined for local populations and, in the worst case, could go to warlords or on the black market."

He added that it was essential to map the mined areas so people know how to avoid the dangers.

Slow process

Demining is a laborious process. But mapping mines is also a lengthy job which must be done before any clearance can start.

Mine clearing machine
Mine clearing machines were used to clear minefields in Bosnia
The United Nations' Mine Action Programme, made up of more than 80 mine clearance teams, was forced to scale back their funding of Afghan demining agencies in September last year, sending some teams on unpaid leave.

Just three months earlier it laid out plans to clear Afghanistan of mines by 2009. It is estimated that more than 300 square kilometres of high priority areas - grazing land, roads and residential areas - remain.

But the ongoing civil war between the Taleban and the Northern Alliance increases the horrifying statistics.

UN's Mine Action Programme to July 1998
130 sq km of high priority area cleared
122 sq km of former battlefields cleared
686,813 devices (mines and unexploded bombs) destroyed
184 sq km of mined land mapped
120 sq km of former battlefields mapped

The new conflict is likely to introduce a fresh batch of mines and unexploded rockets.

The use of cluster bombs during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the planting of mines without mapping by Mujahedin groups makes any estimation of mine statistics impossible.

The UN estimates that more than 10 million unexploded mines or bombs remain in Afghanistan, and recent reports suggest as many as 15 million mines.

But the British demining agency, the Halo Trust, brought to the public eye during Princess Diana's visit to its operations in Angola, believes numbers are substantially less.

Princess Diana visits an Angolan minefield in 1997
Princess Diana campaigned for landmines to be banned

The mine threat has produced whole communities of disabled Afghans.

Orthopaedic units run by aid agencies can provide the means for a semblance of normal life for mine victims.

But artificial limbs do little to minimise the terrible impact on Afghans whose livelihood depends on being able to do manual work.

The BBC's Freya Michie
"The UN is preparing for a major humanitarian aid push"
Panos Moumtzis, UNHCR
"The people of Afghanistan, they have already suffered so much"
See also:

01 Oct 01 | South Asia
Food reaches hungry Kabul
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
27 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair calls for aid alliance
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans brace for US strike
11 Jan 01 | South Asia
Afghan refugees' unending plight
05 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans' camps without hope
22 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan's fear of refugee flood
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
Pakistan warns of Afghan instability
25 Sep 01 | South Asia
The wild border town of Quetta
26 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghans place hopes in UN
06 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghan cash pledges top appeal
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