Removal of Terror Weapons Achieved Only 'Inch-by-Inch'

By Erwin, Sandra I. | National Defense, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Removal of Terror Weapons Achieved Only 'Inch-by-Inch'


Erwin, Sandra I., National Defense


Contractors responsible for clearing minefields in war-torn areas of the world-such as Bosnia and Kosovo-- concede that, despite today's advanced munitions technology, the task of finding and removing landmines remains a low-tech drudgery.

Bosnia has more than 600,000 landmines and a yet largely undetermined amount of unexploded ordnance infesting some 300 square kilometers of land, according to a U.S. State Department report. Of nearly 300,000 landmines so far identified, 83 percent are antipersonnel mines, and 17 percent are antitank. As many as 85 types may have been deployed during the war between Serbians, Croatians and Muslims in the early 1990s.

The majority of minefields are unmarked, the report said. Army maps were handed over to the peacekeeping force after the 1995 cease-fire, but some areas were mined and re-mined during the war, making many maps worthless. Road systems, power plants, bridges, dams and other parts of the infrastructure also were heavily mined.

Between 1996 and 1998, nearly 50,000 landmines were removed. But United Nations officials estimated that, at the current clearance rates, it will take 30 years to free Bosnia-- Herzegovina of landmines.

Unexploded Ordnance

Another ravaged region in the Balkans is Kosovo, which not only has an abundance of minefields left behind by the warring Serbians and the Kosovo Liberation Army, but its fields and villages also are scattered with unexploded ordnance dropped by NATO warplanes during the campaign against the Serbian government. U.S. officials do not yet have accurate estimates on the number of minefields in Kosovo. "We estimate that there are several hundred thousand mines in Kosovo, but we don't know how accurate that estimate is," said Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon.

But he offered a more specific account of the unexploded ordnance. U.S. planes dropped about 1,100 cluster bombs during the 11-week air war. Each releases between 150 to 200 bomblets-small canisters that land on individual parachutes or with metal shuttlecocks. Typically, these bomblets are movement-sensitive and explode if touched or shifted. The dud rate for a standard cluster is approximately 5 percent, Bacon said. That means there could be up to 10,000 unexploded bombs lurking in Kosovo. Recently, a Kosovar boy lost his hand when he plugged in a boombox and set off an explosive inside. Two Gurkhas-Nepalese soldiers serving in the British army-and two Albanians were killed while trying to remove a cluster bomb from a school. In Bosnia, the unexploded ordnance mostly is from artillery.

Landmines and unexploded ordnance (UXO) present separate sets of problems and removal challenges, experts said. But they agreed the removal of these munitions all demand painstaking labor, because they are difficult to find and extremely dangerous. They were designed, after all, to maim and kill humans.

"People don't seem to realize how labor intensive this kind of work is. There is no foolproof method out there right now for detecting all types of land mines, particularly antipersonnel landmines," said Zeth M. DeVore, project engineer for UXB International, Ashburn, Va. The company has been working on humanitarian demining in Bosnia since 1996 as a subcontractor to Parsons Engineering, a Delaware-based firm. The demining project is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

During an interview in Ashburn, DeVore pointed at several landmines displayed on a conference table. "They make them in so many different types," he said. One is a plastic box the size of a cellular phone. "It has no metal in it whatsoever so it cannot be found with metal detectors," DeVore said. Others are made of steel and are the size of a doughnut. "The variety is everywhere in between."

The variety of fuses used further complicates detection. Fuses range from simple pressure sensors to magnetic, light-activated, electric, and heat sensors. …

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