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Sign up to landmine treaty, rivals told

As the enforcement of the UN ban on landmines marked its 10 year anniversary this month, activists are calling on India and Pakistan to sign and ratify the convention.

SRINAGAR, INDIA // As the enforcement of the UN ban on landmines marked its 10 year anniversary this month, activists are calling on India and Pakistan to sign and ratify the convention on the weapons that cause hundreds of deaths and injuries every year. In January, peace activists and members of Kashmiri civil society groups marched through the streets of Srinagar to demand the South Asian neighbours sign up to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty.

The demonstration, organised by ActionAid, an international humanitarian and development agency, came in response to several reports of civilians falling victim to landmines and cluster munitions in different parts of the region. And just this month, at least three civilians, including a 14-year-old boy, as well as an Indian soldier, lost limbs after coming into contact with anti-personnel mines close to Line of Control, the de facto border that divides the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir

On Wednesday, a devastating fire was triggered by a landmine explosion close to an Indian military base at Balakote in the Mendhar area in Kashmir. According to a forest department official, Nazir Ahmed, the fire, which is still raging, has already consumed hundreds of trees and other flora and fauna spread over an area of one kilometre. Among the front-runners of the campaign seeking a ban on landmines in the Indian subcontinent is the Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez, who himself lost a leg in 2004 in an explosion that killed two others.

"It is a failed and rogue weapon which keeps claiming lives even after you make peace with the enemy," said Mr Parvez, 32. In Oct 2007, Mr Parvez, as a member of the Kashmir branch of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), travelled to Pakistan to meet key players in the Kashmiri insurgency to plead for a ban on the use of antipersonnel mines, including leading militant Syed Salahuddin.

At the end of a three-week mission, the militants acknowledged the use of antipersonnel mines is "equivalent to blind terror" and pledged not to use them in the future. Sylvie Brigot, executive director of ICBL, termed the promise as "yet another sign of the growing acceptance of the norm which prohibits antipersonnel mines because of their indiscriminate nature". But militants and various non-state armed groups active in Kashmir are increasingly resorting to the indiscriminate use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and other command-detonated devices to target convoys of Indian soldiers and paramilitaries, but which also cause civilian casualties.

On March 6, two IEDs weighing eight and 10 kilograms planted along roadsides in two different locations in Kupwara were defused by the Jammu and Kashmir police bomb disposal squad. The IEDs, wrapped in polythene bags, were apparently meant for Indian troop convoys which pass through every day, officials said. A key characteristic of antipersonnel mines, first used on a wide scale in the Second World War, is that they are designed to maim rather than kill enemy soldiers as more resources are taken up caring for an injured soldier than dealing with a dead soldier. The weapon is customarily used to protect strategic areas.

Militant groups use mines chiefly to target the security forces but the number of civilian casualties has spiked in recent years, both in Kashmir and elsewhere in north-eastern India, though these are also the result of the many antipersonnel mines that were laid in the past by Pakistan and India during hostilities between the two countries. "There is an urgent need for the comprehensive clearance of mines already in the ground in our state," Mr Parvez said.

Though India has declined to reveal the number of its stockpile of antipersonnel mines - the great majority of which are believed to be Indian-manufactured M14 mines - it is estimated to be between four and five million, making it the fifth largest stockpile in the world, according to Landmine Monitor, the de facto monitoring regime for the Mine Ban Treaty. In 2007, Landmine Monitor identified at least 170 new casualties of victim-activated explosive devices, with 41 killed and 129 injured, 89 of whom were civilians and 81 military.

India claims it needs landmines to secure its long, porous borders, but analysts are sceptical. "More civilians and Indian military than enemy forces are killed and maimed by landmines, including children and women" said Anuradha Chenoy, professor at the School of International Studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. Retired ambassador Satnam Jit Singh, now the diplomatic adviser to the International Campaign to Ban Landmine, said: "There is no need to wait for alternatives for India to sign the Mine Ban Treaty. Non-explosive viable alternatives, which do not keep harming innocent lives long after an armed conflict is over, already exist with all armies".

Islamabad, too, while expressing support for the goal of eventual elimination of antipersonnel mines, says mines are essential to its national security at this time. In 2006 there were at least 488 new casualties from mines, with 203 killed and 285 injured. yjameel@thenational.ae

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