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Angolan Fields Again Becoming Threat to Life and Limb

Mines: After progress in removing munitions, both sides in the renewed civil conflict are replanting the devices.

April 23, 1999|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MENONGUE, Angola — Drivers hauling food to refugee camps on the outskirts of this embattled provincial capital have been given some life-or-death advice: Stay within the tire tracks of the vehicle that passed before you.

The same concern for safety has kept thousands of uprooted Angolans dependent on international food handouts, as they hastily flee renewed fighting between government and rebel troops.

"We would like to plant our own crops, but we are very afraid of the land mines," said Bartolomeu Manjolo, a barefoot farmer in a ragged white shirt at a slapdash settlement about 10 miles out of town. "We are not able to go anywhere."

Worries about antipersonnel mines in Angola have existed longer than this southwest African country has had independence. For more than three decades, mines have been a favorite tool of terror, as rival political groups first battled Portuguese colonialists and then turned on each other with the backing of the United States, the former Soviet Union and other Cold War adversaries.

But Manjolo and other Angolans living near the country's newly charged battlefields are not just fretting about the past. Many of the land mines that have them fearing for their lives are as fresh as this season's tropical rain showers.

After four years of internationally acclaimed progress in removing mines, both sides in Angola's reignited civil conflict are once again laying the devices with a vengeance.

The Angolan government and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola--the rebel group known by its Portuguese acronym, UNITA--have acknowledged to U.N. monitors that they began re-mining last year after their peace agreement, signed in 1994, started to rapidly unravel. The Angolan government has signed, but not yet ratified, a 1997 convention banning land mines, which took effect last month.

Of the many tragedies surrounding the return to fighting here, perhaps none is more distressing than the reintroduction of the deadly booby traps, dispirited humanitarian aid workers say.

"The situation is going very badly," said Andrea Lari of Jesuit Refugee Service, among several international groups that condemned the re-mining in letters to the government and rebels after a rash of deadly explosions several months ago. "It is a great frustration. With the country going back to war, we are seeing all of the efforts made in the last few years disappear very quickly."

The resumption of mine-laying has been so aggressive that at least a quarter of the painstaking progress in removing minefields since 1995 has been numerically offset by the planting of fresh fields, according to United Nations officials. Until last year, the laying of new mines had been largely restricted to out-of-the-way areas controlled either by defiant rebels or diamond barons worried about marauders.

Undoing the good work, mine experts say, has been frighteningly simple: New mines scattered across vast stretches of territory are being laid in a matter of hours, while de-miners, usually working by hand, require an entire day to clear an area smaller than a squash court.

"The mines that are now being redeployed are not necessarily in the same areas that we have cleared, but I don't exclude that possibility," said Oystein Gudim of Norwegian People's Aid, the largest de-mining organization in Angola. "My impression is that the new mines are mostly being put in areas where there is new fighting."

Some Help from Princess Diana

There are an estimated 70,000 amputees in Angola, most of whom are said to have lost limbs in mine explosions before the 1994 peace accord brought an end, at least temporarily, to hostilities. Although several other countries, such as Cambodia and Afghanistan, have equally intractable land-mine problems, Angola's maimed became a poignant symbol for opponents of the munitions after Britain's Princess Diana visited the heavily mined central highlands shortly before her death to console young amputees.

With the peace deal now shattered, the numbers of dead and wounded are once again skyrocketing. In February, in Bie province, one of the flash points of the new conflict and a focus of Diana's visit in 1997, 26 people were reportedly killed and 47 wounded by mine explosions. About six of the country's other 17 provinces are also heavily mined.

U.N. officials say the best indication of how things have worsened in recent months is the increase in mine-related accidents.

During most of 1998, there was an average of 11 incidents a month, killing a total of five people and seriously wounding five, according to Gerard Chagniot of the U.N. Office for Project Services, which collects mine-related statistics. But by November, the monthly tally had jumped to 56 accidents, and a total of 30 dead and 26 wounded.

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