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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Syrian civilians face landmine menace after ISIL

Syria is facing an unprecedented landmine crisis caused by departing ISIL insurgents, campaigners warned in a report released on Wednesday.

The explosives are killing and maiming hundreds of civilians, mostly children, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said, despite many areas having been liberated by security forces.

Published on International Mine Awareness Day, the report said displaced people returning to the Deir Ezzor, Hassakeh and Raqqa regions of Syria face mortal danger.

Numerous booby traps, landmines, ammunition and rockets have been rigged to explode in and around the homes of unsuspecting families.

"Many are not aware that there are a lot of risks waiting for them," Imad Aoun, MSF's field communication adviser for Iraq and Syria, told The National.

The explosives are suspected to have been planted by the insurgents or armed groups as they retreated.

"They are usually missiles that haven't exploded or booby traps set in place to harm people," Mr Aoun said. "Many people think it's safe to go back home but the minute they enter their homes …"

The problem is difficult to tackle as such devices are hard to detect, difficult to clear and often designed to maim, rather than kill.

Landmines are also hard to spot as they are usually buried under earth or rubble, a problem that has existed for decades in neighbouring Iraq.

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US-backed fighters on high alert in Syria's Manbij

Will anyone be prosecuted for war crimes in Syria?

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In north-east Syria, ISIL's former heartland, civilians are being wounded in many ways, including reports of detonations after bedroom doors have been opened in homes. The majority of those treated in MSF-affiliated hospitals have suffered landmine injuries in Deir Ezzor.

More than half of the patients treated are children, one just 12 months old

"Children are not always aware of what these mines and booby traps look like, they come in forms of cars or teddy bears," Mr Aoun said.

Last year, Deir Ezzor topped Syrian areas for migration, with more than 800,000 leaving, according to UN estimates.

Those left critically wounded face immense difficulties in obtaining medical and acute trauma care because of Syria's war-shattered state. With many roads damaged or blocked, it often takes hours to reach hospital, increasing the odds of death before treatment can be given.

Satoru Ida, MSF's head of mission in Syria, said people interviewed outlined a catalogue of risks.

"Landmines, booby traps and other improvised explosive devices are planted in fields, along roads, on the roofs of houses, and under staircases," he said. "Household items like teapots, pillows, cooking pots, toys, air-conditioning machines and refrigerators are also reportedly rigged to explode as people return home for the first time after months or years in displacement."

Iraq faces similar problems, stemming as far back as the war with neighbouring Iran between 1980 and 1988.

Years of work by international organisations had limited those dangers but ISIL has raised them again.

The threat is highest in areas that suffered significant destruction such as Mosul and the province of Anbar, west of Baghdad, where landmines are still posing a security threat to civilians and security forces.

With Iraqis returning home as more areas are liberated, unexploded ordnance lies hidden among the rubble, a separate report by the Mines Advisory Group said this year.

Four Iraqi servicemen were killed on Sunday in a landmine explosion in Anbar, security officials said.

Over the past few years, thousands of roadside bombs planted around the streets and buildings of Ramadi, 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, delayed the return of about half a million displaced residents since the Iraqi military, backed by US air strikes, recaptured the city in 2016.

The international action day on mines urges governments to develop better policies to tackle explosive ordnance.

A Mine Ban Treaty that became international law in 1999 currently has 162 state signatories.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for collective action to strengthen its reach. "I urge all governments to provide political and financial support to enable mine action work to continue, wherever it is needed. In our turbulent world, mine action is a concrete step towards peace."