Saturday, April 30, 2016

World Landmine Awareness Day - Egypt maintains #1 rank as country with most landmines

Mada Masr
On world landmine day, Egypt maintains dubious top ranking for number of landmines in its soils

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Jano Charbel 

Egypt still has the most landmines of any country in the world, according to the independent nongovernmental organization the Landmine Struggle Center, with well over 21 million deadly devices hidden in its sands, down from an estimated 23 million.

The estimated figure includes un-detonated devices that remain concealed or buried in the earth. The majority are located in the Western Desert and date back nearly 75 years to World War II.

Egypt is littered with nearly 20 percent of all world’s landmines — globally estimated at 110 million — which continue to claim lives and limbs. The state may still be producing, stockpiling and perhaps even exporting its domestically made landmines to other countries.

While Egypt commemorated the International Day of Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action on April 4, paying tribute to thousands of landmine victims, it has refused to sign the UN’s Mine-Ban Convention since its introduction in 1997.

To commemorate the day, International Cooperation Minister Sahar Nasr launched the “Together for Egypt, Stop Landmines” campaign in Matrouh Governorate, which has the highest concentration of landmines in the country. Modest demining efforts are being planned, while thousands of pamphlets to raise awareness regarding the dangers of landmines are being distributed among schoolchildren and local residents.

This year Egypt has received international and private grants amounting to US$17.5 million, according to the state-owned daily newspaper Al-Akhbar — $12 million of which has been earmarked for mine-detecting equipment, while the remaining $5.5 million has been allocated to the assistance of landmine victims and their families.

Over the past few decades, Egypt has called for international assistance — particularly from the formerly warring parties of Germany, Italy and the UK — in its efforts to demine thousands of square kilometers which were littered with over 17.5 million mines during the World War II battles of Al-Alamein along Egypt’s border with Libya.

Some 5.5 million other mines were planted during the Egyptian-Israeli wars from 1956 to 1973 in the Eastern Sinai Peninsula, and along the Suez Canal and Red Sea, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and the Landmine Struggle Center  These mines were planted on Egyptian soil by both warring states.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry estimates that demining efforts from 1981 to the present have succeeded in removing nearly 3 million landmines, mostly from the Western Desert, thus reclaiming tens of thousands of hectares of land.

Official estimates suggest that hundreds have been killed and thousands of others seriously injured in minefields leftover from World War II, locally known as “hadayeq al-shaytan” (the devil’s gardens.)

While there are no definitive figures as to how many landmines and victims there are in Egypt, the Foreign Affairs Ministry reports there have been more than 8,313 documented casualties in the Western Desert alone since 1982, among both civilians and members of the Armed Forces. These are reported to include at least 696 fatalities and 7,617 serious injuries. Real numbers of casualties may be significantly higher, as many cases are not officially reported.

Mines have also killed and maimed scores of others along Egypt’s eastern border, although these numbers have not been recorded.

Among the most recent victims of landmines included two employees from the Antiquities Ministry who were killed on February 21 while conducting excavations around an archaeological site in the Suez Canal Governorate of Ismailia. A third employee was reportedly injured in this blast.

Apart from landmines dating to World War II, armed Islamist elements are currently involved in planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in the northern Sinai Peninsula targeting police and armed forces.

Al-Akhbar newspaper reported that on March 21, one farmer was killed and another seriously wounded when their tractor drove over and detonated a landmine in Rafah near the border with Gaza and Israel. More recently, on April 2 the privately owned Al-Tahrir news site reported that a 9-year-old boy was killed in a landmine explosion in Rafah. A woman and man were also hospitalized the same day after having been seriously injured in two separate landmine blasts in the Rafah area.

Beyond the costly human toll, the presence of old wartime landmines of both the anti-personnel and anti-tank types continue to render thousands of kilometers of land unusable for agriculture, infrastructure development or petroleum and mineral prospecting.

According to the website of the State Information Service, Egypt faces numerous obstacles in its struggle to demine its lands. Chief among these obstacles is the very hefty price tag associated with de-mining. For instance, the clearing of Al-Alamein’s minefields is estimated to cost a staggering $20 billion.

Other factors hindering Egypt’s de-mining efforts include the loss or absence of maps indicating the locations of mines, although the UK has reportedly handed over maps of its World War II minefields.
There is also the gargantuan challenge of safely detecting mines that have gradually shifted over the course of decades — sunk deeper into the earth, covered by shifting sand dunes or washed away from their original locations.

The absence of roads leading to these minefields, along with a lack of mine-detecting equipment, compounds the difficulties associated with de-mining efforts.

According to the State Information Service site, several countries have contributed to Egypt’s demining campaigns with millions of dollars’ worth of funds and mine-detectors, including the UK, Germany, Italy, New Zealand and the European Union.

The United Nation’s theme for April 4, 2016 is “Mine action is humanitarian action, because mine action saves lives.” Other than Egypt, the nations most affected by landmines include Iran, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq and Cambodia.

As for the UN’s Mine-Ban Convention (Ottawa Treaty of 1997), to date a total of 162 countries have ratified it. However, Egypt is among a club of 35 states — including the USA, Russia, China and Israel — that has neither signed nor ratified the convention.

Citing security concerns pertaining to cross-border threats of terrorism and drug smuggling, Egypt continues refuse to join the convention. “Egypt believes the agreement is deficient, where it made no association between the disposal by countries of their stockpiles of mines, and the provision of assistance to countries in clearing mines from their territories,” said the State Information Service.

However, Egypt’s arguments regarding security concerns ring hollow in light of human rights reports indicating that it has in previous years and decades produced, stockpiled and even exported its domestically made landmines to several war-torn states, including Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Somalia.

Details regarding Egypt’s production and exportation of mines are not made publicly available. However, officials have reportedly informed the UN that Egypt has refrained from producing or exporting anti-personnel landmines since the 1980s.

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