Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Sunday, 14 March 2010

The long road to clearing Falklands landmines


Rajesh Mirchandani explains what the de-mining project will involve

Nearly 30 years after Britain and Argentina went to war over the Falkland Islands, a pilot project has begun to rid the territory of some of the 20,000 landmines left behind and clean up land that has been off limits since the conflict, as the BBC's Rajesh Mirchandani reports.

Through the chill wind and rain, we drive up a rugged track to a craggy peak then clamber over rocks and down through soft muddy undergrowth, past sodden rain-filled trenches once used by fighting troops.

On the downward slope of this rainswept hillside, about 100 metres ahead of us, men in bulky orange outfits and thick plastic visors are moving slowly, some on all fours, across a tract of land from which the grass has been removed.

This is Sapper Hill, outside Port Stanley, a place mined by the Argentines and bombed by the British during the Falklands conflict. And for some 27 years since then, it has been too dangerous to walk on.

Now, from a safe distance, we watch the de-mining team, The group is from Zimbabwe but while they may be a long way from home, this is familiar territory.

"Because I come from a country with landmines, I know the potential dangers of mines," says one of them, Michael Madziva.

Inch by inch

This team has been here since December, and their work is painstakingly slow.

The signs warning of the mines are a common sight

Inch by inch they clear themselves a path in which to work, alongside rows where they believe mines are buried.

They locate them using metal detectors and hand tools, clearing away vegetation and soil to expose lethal weapons, planted decades ago.

There are Spanish, Italian and Israeli mines, small circular anti-personnel ones and large heavy anti-vehicle explosives.

Their plastic cases are undamaged, their contents are still lethal. And after nearly 30 years in the soil, many are preserved in near pristine condition.

Warning signs

Following the Falklands conflict, there were initial attempts to clear mines, but many injuries resulted.

We are happy when we find any items … we feel that we save someone
Houssam Hijazie, Lebanese de-mining team working in Falklands

The British decided it was too dangerous and instead fenced off the minefields. Warnings were posted and stiff penalties imposed on anyone who jumped the fences for, say, an unusual photo opportunity.

And it seems to have worked because no-one has been hurt in years.

As a result (and because the Falklands has relatively few mines compared to the millions laid in countries such as Angola and Cambodia) the Falklands government says it would prefer to see money spent on clearance projects in places where people are still being injured or killed.

Under an international treaty - the Ottawa Convention - the British government was required to have cleared the Falklands of all mines by March 2009, but it asked for a 10-year extension.

The current clearance programme began in December and will continue until around June. It is designed to remove 1,250 devices and clear the corresponding territory. Their current tally is around 900, but some 20,000 remain.

Mine map

The cold wet weather slows their efforts as do the different types of terrain mined in the Falklands - from peaty soil to sandy beach.

What does help the clearance teams is knowing where the mines lie, thanks to careful plans left behind by the Argentines.

On a computer screen in the nearby office of the Falkland Islands Demining Programme, technical adviser Guy Marot clicks between an aerial photo of two cleared minefields and a hand-drawn diagram of the same spot, to demonstrate how reality matches the plan.

He scrolls through pages of numerical records, entitled Armada Argentina (Argentine navy) with tables of numbers corresponding to exact positions where mines were laid.

To date, he says, the records have been accurate.

"It does show us where the mines are, in what rows and in what configuration," he says.

"No army goes into a conflict with the intention of losing it. So they will always go in with the intention, having laid mines, of wanting to lift them. And they want to do that in the safest way possible, which means they can identify exactly where everything was laid."

Field sweep

But it is not just Argentine weapons they are looking for.

The removal of mines will take years

On Sapper Hill, next to the minefield, is a strip of land where the British dropped cluster munitions, a more random dispersal.

A team of men are carrying a large rectangular frame, one on each corner and one behind, and walking in careful lines.

They come from Lebanon, and are using a large metal detector to do a further sweep of this field that they have already cleared.

"Myself and my team are happy to clear munitions everywhere," one of the men, Houssam Hijazie, says.

"In my country especially, plus here in the Falklands, we are happy when we find any items … we feel that we save someone."

'Firing now'

A few miles away we are escorted along a closed road and stop a few hundred metres from a crescent-shaped strip of sand, backed by rugged rocks against which waves pound and roar.

This is Surf Beach, to the north of Stanley, but few would dare catch a wave here because the land between the road and the beach is one of the most densely-mined areas of the Falklands.

The de-miners have plans that show the locations of more than 1,000 mines across several sites. In excess of six hundred have been cleared.

From a safe distance, we watch as mines are detonated to destroy them.

The de-miners who will set off the charges, radio to the team leaders "Firing now" and a few seconds later, black soil is blasted into the air. A few seconds after that, we hear the boom.

It is clear their work could last for many more years.

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