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 Friday, 10 January, 2003, 18:19 GMT
India mine clearing to 'take months'
Indian troops load up their baggage in town of Bhuj
Both sides are pulling back troops from the border

The Indian army says it will take months to clear mines from thousands of acres of land along the border with Pakistan.

The mines were laid last year as tensions rose following an armed attack on India's parliament in December 2001, which Delhi blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.

Indian Army soldier defuses a land mine in Punjab
Many of the mines are highly unstable
Since the summer, both sides have agreed to pull back troops and talk of war has receded.

The demining exercise along India's northern and western border is one of the army's biggest and most dangerous peacetime operations.

Many farmers fear they will have to live with the lurking danger of mines for years to come.

They are perturbed by reports that mine-clearing is seldom 100% successful.

Slow work

The army's aim, however, is the comprehensive recovery and clearance of the mines.

victim of a mine blast at the border village of Muhawa
Life has become very dangerous for locals
The gigantic exercise, which spreads across the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Indian-administered Kashmir, involves the precise relocation and recovery of more than one million anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.

Mine-clearing is perilous as mines may have shifted from their original locations for a variety of reasons.

It is also painstakingly slow.

The relocation and neutralisation of each and every landmine requires the expertise of specially trained sapper units.

Military personnel engaged in this task in the minefields on the Punjab border told the BBC that it could take several months to complete operations there.

Rats

According to an officer leading a mine recovery and disposal unit less than 200 metres from the Pakistan border in Punjab, his job has been severely complicated by the problem of shifting mines.

This could either be due to monsoon floods or the work of field rats, who have been known to carry away scores of small anti-personnel mines over large distances.

In addition to this, the officer disclosed that after nearly a year of being exposed to the elements, some of the landmines had become unstable and prone to exploding without warning.

It is essentially because of such life-threatening hazards - as well as the scarcity of trained manpower and mine-detection equipment - that operations are taking so long.

The army says it has taken more than a month to clear just 500 of more than 50,000 acres of farmland that were laid with mines in Punjab.

Fears

Officers say they have to be certain that all mines have been cleared before they can safely return each minefield to agricultural use.

For the thousands of border farmers in Punjab, who were literally forced to vacate their farms to make way for the minefields, the prospect of getting back their farmland is a very happy one.

But they are now apprehensive that they could be forced to live with the constant danger of unrecovered landmines that could explode without warning.

They also point out that the row between India and Pakistan is far from resolved and could easily escalate again.

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25 Oct 02 | South Asia
13 Oct 02 | South Asia
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