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Afghan mine project is slowed by violence

With more than half the country cleared, increased fighting and

July 05, 2009|Patrick Quinn

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Kneeling under the hot morning sun, a few men carefully poke and prod at the baked earth on the outskirts of the Afghan capital. As cars and trucks drive past just a few yards away, one man exposes a deadly mine and puts explosives on it.

The mine blows up with a loud thud. The men mark the spot with a green stone. Dozens of stones are already spread across the area, in one of the most heavily mined countries in the world.

Afghanistan has cleared two-thirds of the country of mines over two decades, and had hoped to get rid of the rest by 2013. But experts fear that it can no longer meet its goals because of an increase in fighting and a decline in international funding. The result is more danger to both soldiers and civilians, with 50 people a month killed or maimed by mines.

Violence has closed off many of Afghanistan's provinces to trained de-miners, who are increasingly targeted and killed by militants. Last year, according to the United Nations Mine Action Center, insurgents shot and killed six de-miners in one day and two the next.

One reason is that the mines provide raw materials for militants making roadside bombs to use against U.S. and NATO forces.

A roadside bomb blast in southern Afghanistan killed two U.S. troops on June 19, and U.S. military officials have said they expect a 50% increase in the number of roadside or suicide bomb attacks this year. Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the region, predicted in mid-June that the situation would deteriorate as the war against militants escalates.

"Mines are used as part of the main charge" for the roadside bombs, NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. "These devices are in the majority simple in construction, with insurgents using whatever materials -- including mines -- they can."

The mines in Afghanistan are a legacy of decades of Soviet occupation and subsequent civil wars. Tens of thousands of mines and unexploded bombs pepper the rugged country. Last year, 84,900 mines, and 2.5 million unexploded bombs and ordnance rounds were cleared.

"There is a huge problem here in Afghanistan," said Richard Evans, a de-mining officer with the HALO Trust, a British charity that specializes in the removal of land mines and other debris of war. "The only way to get them out of the ground is to get teams in and get them on their hands and knees and clear the mines."

Evans said his team eliminates about 75 mines a day near the Bagram air base, slowly clearing areas so families eventually can return. But he said the work has become increasingly difficult because the violence keeps his team out of some areas.

He and others also bring up funding shortages. The economic turndown means less money for all charities. There are also concerns that the renewed fighting will draw attention and funds away from mine clearing.

The United Nations says it needs $500 million over the next five years to reach its goal and has received 70% of the $108 million it needs this year.

"In 2001 and 2002 we were thinking that everything is over, but now again it's happening again," said Najmuddin, 43, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross orthopedic center in Kabul, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. Najmuddin lost both legs to a mine 18 years ago. Today, he walks with a slight limp on two prosthetic replacements.

The center cares for about 250 people a day, providing new limbs, wheelchairs and physical therapy for the disabled. There are an estimated 50,000 amputees in Afghanistan, mostly mine victims.

Patients sit on benches, trying on new limbs or resting from physical therapy. One man wraps both hands around the stump where his leg used to be, crutches by his side. He lost both legs to a mine when he was 12.

Others practice walking with their new prosthetic legs by placing them on footprints painted on the floor. Some are trying them on for the first time. Others, such as 78-year-old Nawab Khan, are getting replacements.

"I lost my leg a long time ago," said Khan, who was injured by an explosion while working on his farm 10 years ago. "But I feel sorry for these young people that they also have to go through this."

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Quinn writes for the Associated Press.

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