New effort tackles old mines

A UN-sponsored program to remove mines and unexploded shells began in south Lebanon this week.

The latest victim of south Lebanon's legacy of more than half a century of conflict stares wide-eyed and unsmiling from a framed photograph garnished with a white plastic flower.

On a sunny afternoon at the end of April, 6-year-old Abbas Fakieh was playing with his younger brother Abdullah, beside a road near his house, while his elder brother, Hussein, sat on a rock, reading a school book. Abbas reached down into a hole that had been dug to plant a tree and called out to Hussein, "Look I've found a ball."

"Then there was an explosion," Salim Fakieh, Abbas's father, recalls with tears in his eyes. The blast killed Abbas instantly and wounded his two brothers, Hussein seriously. The "ball" Abbas found was a cluster bomblet, dating from either 1978 or 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and pounded At-Tiri and neighboring villages from the air with cluster bombs. Each bomb discharged hundreds of bomblets over a wide area. Many failed to explode and still lurk, undiscovered.

The often brightly colored bomblets, about the size of a tennis ball, are particularly attractive to children. Since Israel withdrew its troops in May 2000, ending a 22-year occupation of the area, 25 people have been killed and 154 wounded by land mines and leftover bombs.

The scourge of land mines is cited as the main reason for the lack of development in south Lebanon since Israel's military withdrawal. Improvements to local infrastructure of mined areas lag behind the rest of the country.

The United Nations, however, hopes to assist south Lebanon through a program to rid the area of land mines, unexploded shells, and booby-traps. Bolstered by a $50 million grant from the United Arab Emirates, the UN launched the Operation Emirates Solidarity demining program last year. The program, which shifted gears from mine location to mine removal on Tuesday, seeks to remove 100,000 land mines over the next two years, mainly in populated areas.

Locating all the mined areas has been hampered by the Israeli army's tardiness in handing over details of its minefields. The UN has pressed Israel since May 2000 to hand over the maps, and has received details on around 400,000 mines. The UN suspects that the Israeli army has more data. "We are always asking for more and the Israelis say they are checking," says Timur Goksel, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.

Using sniffer dogs and vehicles equipped with rotating flails, deminers from Minetech, clad in orange overalls and equipped with probes and metal detectors, are clearing a hillside minefield on the outskirts of Beit Yahoun village, two miles from At-Tiri. Minetech is one of two international companies contracted to remove land mines from south Lebanon.

Hundreds of yellow wooden pegs mark the location of each mine uncovered and destroyed by Minetech workers. "The pegs cost more than the land mine," says Major Vick Thackwray, a Minetech team leader.

But the removal phase of the program excludes a narrow strip of land running along the border with Israel and a swath of hill country in southeast Lebanon. The omission has not yet been explained by the Lebanese government. The UN estimates some 300,000 land mines exist there, affecting 16 villages. Western observers suspect the reason for the exclusion may lie with the Hizbullah fighters operating along the Lebanon-Israel border. UN officials are quick to praise Hizbullah for the assistance its fighters have given deminers in locating numerous mined areas. But one Western demining official says that Hizbullah's extensive military network is the reason that certain areas remain outside the UN demining program. "Given the current circumstances in the region, there may be parties on the ground that don't want international companies operating there," the official says.

Nonetheless, Beirut has indicated to the UN that the Lebanese Army will shoulder the responsibility for clearing land mines from the excluded zone.

For Salim Fakieh and his grieving family, it cannot come soon enough. "Do my children have to remain prisoners in their home?" he asks. "They need to play outside, but, since Abbas was killed, I don't dare let them out of the house."

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