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Unexploded munitions a lingering peril as NATO ends Afghan war

KABUL: The end of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan could be a watershed moment in tackling unexploded ordnance littering the country, but experts complain US-led forces need to hand over more information on where it all is.

Decades of conflict since the Soviet invasion in 1979 have left landmines, shells, bombs and rockets scattered across towns, villages and fields, even after extensive clearance efforts that have safely removed millions of items.

All sides involved in the prolonged fighting have been responsible for UXO (unexploded ordnance), with children most at risk because of their curiosity and the fact they often play in unmarked minefields.

At the start of this year, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was replaced by the US-led “Resolute Support” — a training and support mission that signals a key stage of the withdrawal of foreign troops who arrived in 2001.

“They used weapons and they know that unexploded ordinance will be left behind. This information is life-saving,” Mohammad Sediq Rashid, director of the Mine Action Coordination Centre for Afghanistan (MACCA), told AFP.

“If they gave us the location of where it happened, with the coordinates, it really helps. But we don’t get it. They have given some (information), but that’s not enough. They should give more.

“We have raised this issue with ISAF… So far, no action has been taken and they are leaving. If they don’t give it to us, it will be very hard. It will take time, more money, and casualties.

“Lots of people will lose their lives, especially children.”

Deadly legacy

At Jangalak, south of Kabul, the Halo Trust, a charity that specialises in the removal of ordnance, is clearing UXO from the frontline of the 1980s civil war.

“The most dangerous is blind (unexploded) ammunition because if you touch it or try to remove it, sometimes it goes off,” Zabto Khan, a senior Halo Trust official said.

Most civilians are injured by ERW — explosive remnants of war including cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance — and not just by mines, said Khan. “This is a big challenge for the next five or 10 years. Most ERW is very close to residential areas.”

According to the United Nations’ 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), all parties must help to clear unexploded munitions after hostilities cease.

But the reality in Afghanistan is that the fighting is set to continue, with the Taliban inflicting heavy casualties on the Afghan security forces, and about 17,000 US-led foreign troops due to stay deployed in the country this year.

ISAF told AFP in a statement that it had cleared all unexploded munitions from those firing ranges not being handed over to Afghan forces (ANSF). Ranges are often on open ground and accessible to public.

“ISAF has trained more than 7,500 ANSF in order to dispose of anti-government munitions,” it added.

“This effort has resulted in ISAF and ANSF disposing of more than 1.2 million munitions over the last three and a half years.”

ISAF stressed it had never used landmines, but it declined to comment on unexploded ISAF munitions across Afghanistan after 13 years of firefights, offensives and aerial bombing.

About 10 percent of all ammunition does not explode, experts say, leaving a deadly legacy that can kill and maim for decades afterward.

MACCA says Afghanistan remains among the world’s most deadly countries for UXO, with about 40 people dying every month. Almost half of them are children.

Millions of explosive devices have been destroyed by groups working under the UN-linked MACCA since 2001 in one of the great achievements of the international effort in Afghanistan.

Now progress is set to slow as the US-led intervention winds down and international funding falls.

“Planning and everything is done through international organisations,” said Rashid.

“The role of the Afghan government addressing the issue is crucial. But there is no sense of ownership.” (AFP)

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