US helps Lebanon defuse huge variety of unexploded bombs, mines
Beirut — Across the street from Prime Minister Shafik Wazzan's office and just a few feet from the Lebanese Central Bank, the Lebanese Army has proudly strapped a 155mm howitzer shell to a fence like a trophy in a showcase.
The problem is that this particular ''war souvenir,'' a leftover from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of last summer, is very live and very dangerous.
A team of American military explosive experts has spent four months here teaching the Lebanese just how to defuse and dispose of that shell and thousands of other weapons littering the city, waiting for someone to trip on them.
Navy Lt. Col. John Boyden and 12 other men will have taught 76 Lebanese soldiers how to get rid of the explosives when they pack up their mobile ''explosive ordnance disposal'' unit Dec. 11.
''They'll be cleaning up for 10 years,'' says Colonel Boyden, a 17-year veteran of the explosives squad. ''Next year the city will be surface clean,'' if the Lebanese put about 50 men to work. ''But every time they move debris, they will find unexploded ordnance. As long as this stuff is lying around, people will get killed.''
Boyden's Lebanese trainees removed five Israeli bombs and about 45 US-made cluster bombs from the grounds of a Lebanese private charity orphanage just outside Beirut after orphanage administrators notified them that four children had died playing with cluster bombs.
''Anyplace else people would go get the army or the police,'' he says. But the Lebanese have become so accustomed to weapons that they ignore the danger and even use them for various purposes. Once, Boyden says, he saw a live projectile, painted red and white, sitting in the middle of a main street to indicate a checkpoint.
The American team (including seven Navy men, three marines, two Army men, and one Air Force man) had discovered more than 250 kinds of ordnance made by 17 different countries. At least 80 types the Americans had never seen before.
Boyden said the Americans had been surprised by both the ''vast amounts and different types,'' including some dating back to 1942 and some coming from such diverse countries as the United States, Portugal, Norway, the Soviet Union, and North Korea.
They found 40 kinds of hand grenades alone, Boyden said.
''This is the best training we've had since Vietnam,'' Boyden says, adding that they are writing their own publications on how to cope with the new varieties.
Before the American team set up its classroom just outside east Beirut, the Lebanese Army simply blew up buildings to dispose of unexploded weapons because they had no training in defusing them.
Operations Dec. 8 showed what the Americans had taught their Lebanese counterparts. A Lebanese Army unit corps worked on a building bordered by high-rise apartments and a small Palestinian refugee camp.
The half-constructed structure had been a PLO ammunition dump bombed repeatedly by Israeli jets. The Lebanese formed a human conveyor belt to painstakingly remove literally tons of weaponry buried underneath the nearly collapsed structure while an American officer kept an eagle's eye from the top floor for any slight hint of mishandling by his apprentice defusers. None of the Americans or the Lebanese have been hurt.