UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
NEPAL: Landmines and explosives threaten fragile new peace
KATMANDU, 21 Jan 2007 (IRIN) - Aid workers and experts warn that the increased freedom of movement given to people under the 2006 peace/arms agreements signed with the Maoists could put peoples' lives at risk as minefields and unexploded ordnance is yet to be removed.
"The end of the armed conflict does not mean there is safety," said mine and bomb risk specialist Hagues Laurenge from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Katmandu.
During the conflict, civilians were not allowed to move freely due to restrictions enforced by security forces and the danger of getting caught in battles between the Nepalese Army and the Maoists. But now this has changed and lives could be at risk.
The arms management agreement aims to remove improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines within 60 days of its signing in December, but some experts claim that would not be possible technically.
Landmines were used by government forces during the conflict while the Maoists made IEDs.
According to the Nepalese Army, so far only one of the minefields has been cleared by its personnel and more mine clearance plans are under way.
Fences are being built to mark mined areas but so far only a few sites have been cleared. The authorities and international organisations are working on raising awareness of the dangers in local communities.
As part of the arms management deal struck in December 2006, the Maoists agreed to give locations of IEDs, commonly used by them, and store them in areas agreed with the government near military cantonment sites. But experts say there is also an urgent need to immediately destroy the unstable devices once they have been gathered.
"It is safe to store as many rifles as you want, but we cannot take the risk for IEDs," warned Laurenge, adding that when a device explodes it can trigger off others in close proximity.
In 2006, there were about 86 explosions, causing 146 casualties, from landmines laid by government forces, and IEDs planted by the Maoists, according to UNICEF and a local human rights group, INSEC.
This was an 80 percent increase on incidents in 2005, according to their findings.
According to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, Nepal is among the top 10 countries for civilian casualties from mine and IED explosions.
About 57 percent of victims are children, who are most vulnerable because the devices were placed randomly near households and in fields, where children play. There are more than 12,000 mines in 50 landmine fields - including anti-personnel and command-detonated landmines in 37 districts, according to the Nepalese Army.
There are no accurate figures on IEDs, but the army and UNICEF estimate between 100,000 and 500,000 have been planted around the country.
The Nepalese government has not yet signed the International Landmine Ban Treaty, but following the peace agreement between the authorities and the Maoists in 2006, human rights agencies and the UN are calling on Kathmandu to sign up this year.
"The government has yet to show commitment to sign the treaty and there is a need for advocacy [to make it happen]. We will be organising a massive campaign by the end of this month about the explosive devices as civilians are most at risk," said Laurenge.
The Nepalese Army has 15 explosive ordnance disposal teams on standby to deal with all types of devices, including IEDs and landmines. However, clearing 49 anti-personnel minefields is a huge task that will probably require additional international support, said Laurenge.
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