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Unexploded mines: Lebanon's hidden horrors

Beirut says it wants to become a signatory of the international Mine Ban Treaty, but continuing tensions with Israel pose a major obstacle.

Unexploded ordnance collected by the United Nations in Tyre in south Lebanon.
Unexploded ordnance collected by the United Nations in Tyre in south Lebanon.

NABATIYEH, LEBANON // Along the imaginary Blue Line that demarcates the border of south Lebanon, military bases squat on the Israeli side, all but touching the rusty wire fence. On the Lebanese side, teams of workers from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are clearing a path for a new road through the area Israel withdrew from in 2000. The road is meant to represent progress, allowing UN peacekeepers to work more easily, and farmers to get to coastal towns.

But horrors lurk below this former war zone. Visitors are led to the site along a narrow path, fenced off on either side. Behind the barbed wire, said MAG workers, are rows of close-packed, Israeli-laid, anti-personnel mines. These minefields are mapped, and the path for the new road is designed to avoid them, but just the previous week, said the experts, they "clipped" the corner of one of these minefields and were forced to detonate more than two dozen bombs.

As the road weaves through these danger zones, there is no likelihood that the mines along the Blue Line will be cleared any time soon. This week, representatives from all over the world gathered in Colombia for the 10-year-review of the Mine Ban - or Ottawa - Treaty, calling for a mine-free world. Although Lebanese soldiers, politicians and non-governmental agencies condemn Israel's mining of the country, Lebanon has refused to sign the treaty, which would require all landmines in the country to be cleared.

Experts say that these mines are now being used as a deterrent to the Israeli forces who originally laid them, although they pose a threat to Lebanese civilians and render some arable land unusable. Timur Goksel, a former official with the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), said, "technically Lebanon is not at peace with Israel and there are a lot of tensions. Israel can start another conflict - Mines are the cheapest defence we can have."

This is at odds with Lebanon's official Mine Action Policy, which states: "The government of Lebanon, conscious of the damage and suffering caused by landmine and explosive remnants of war, shall take full responsibility for the humanitarian, socio-economic and environmental impact caused by these devices and shall rid Lebanon from the impact associated with these devices." The policy states that Lebanon aspires to be a signatory to the Ottawa Treaty.

This apparent contradiction was brought up at the Colombia conference which ended yesterday, when Lebanese officials privately expressed frustration that the government wanted landmines cleared only in selected areas. Gen Mohammed Fehmy, director of the Lebanese Mine Action Centre, a military body that co-ordinates the work of mine groups in south Lebanon, attended the conference hoping to drum up more support and funding for mine clearance in the country.

"Inshallah, we will sign the treaty," he said. "Our hope and aim and vision is to clean every millimetre of the country - but I need orders from headquarters." The mined areas along the Blue Line, he added, belong to the Lebanese people. His colleague, Col Mohammed El Cheikh, said that "for sure", the mines along the Blue Line were affecting Lebanese who were afraid to farm the mined land. Mr Goksel said that neither Hizbollah, the armed group which holds sway in south Lebanon, nor the Lebanese army have ever wanted the border area to be cleared of mines.

Lebanon's south has seen multiple Israeli incursions and conflicts, most recently the 2006 war, and as relations with Israel remain deeply troubled, the mines are seen to deter Israeli ground attack. "It is not a very solid defence," said Mr Goksel, "because Israel knows where they put the mines." But Hizbollah, he said, "discovered the pattern of the mines and looked for the corridors through them, and put defence in those corridors." Knowing the likely places an army might try to cross the border allows strategic deployment ? the mines act as a "force multiplier", he said.

Even passionate anti-land mine campaigners share this view. Lebanon is littered with landmines, not just from the Israeli presence in the south, but laid by all sides in the country's 1975-1990 civil war. In total, landmines have killed and maimed more than 4,000 Lebanese people, including men who are the only breadwinners in their families, since 1975. Habbouba Aoun, who heads Lebanon's Landmine Resource Centre, said: "Landmines denied use of fertile agricultural land. People disabled by landmines need support their whole life." But when asked whether Lebanon should become a signatory to the Mine Ban Treaty, she said, "Of course it would have been better if Lebanon had been a state party to the treaty. But as all know, Lebanon is not able to join right now." Lebanon, she said, is continuously exposed to a threat from Israel, and would suffer if the country abided by the terms of the Mine Ban Treaty, while Israel, which is also not a signatory, did not. Others assert that the landmines along the Blue Line pose a relatively low risk to civilians in comparison with more than a million cluster munitions dropped on south Lebanon at the end of the 2006 conflict with Israel. "Of course our region has really suffered a lot because of landmines," said Yassine Jaber, MP for the south Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh. "But the greatest suffering has happened during the last three years, when we have had more casualties of cluster bombs. Nobody knows where they have landed." More than 350 people have been killed and injured since the fighting stopped. "We have been trying over the years to deal with the issue [of landmines]," said Mr Jaber, adding that, "the biggest effort started after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. But, he said with a bitter laugh, "2006 was a new start," and caused a change of focus. "I think it's a good idea," he said, to sign the Mine Ban Treaty, but not as long as Israel refused to sign. Most of the world - 156 nations - has signed the treaty, which not only bans landmines but also the production, sale and stockpiling of them. Over the past decade, more than 44 million stockpiled mines have been destroyed, and casualty rates have plunged from roughly 25,000 to 5,000 per year. Lebanon is not the only country to refuse to sign up to the treaty. The United States, as well as Cuba, Pakistan, China, North Korea and Iran have all declined to change their policies. According to the Lebanese military, there are still 350,000 landmines along its border. MAG's country programme manager, Christina Bennike, is unequivocal. "Landmines are indiscriminate weapons and all landmines are a danger to the civilian population. We want to remove all landmines that pose a threat to the civilian population." But as long as Lebanon and Israel remain sworn enemies eyeing each other across a rusty fence, she seems unlikely to get her wish. * The National