Lebanon News

Syria border mines add to munitions woes

Syrian army positions near the Lebanese border town of Serhaniyeh whose residents say troops have laid mines nearby.

BEIRUT: As Lebanon faces a new threat of land mines along its shared border with Syria, the 11th meeting of states party to the Ottawa Treaty banning land mines gets under way in Cambodia Monday.

Like its neighbors Syria and Israel, Lebanon has not signed the treaty. And with mines scattered throughout the country, it seems unlikely to meet its goal of full clearance in 10 years.The country’s land-mine problem began before the 1975 beginning of the Civil War, says Habbouba Aoun, coordinator of the Land Mines Resource Center at the University of Balamand.

As the Civil War progressed, various groups planted mines across the country, and she says the problem became more “pronounced after the different Israeli invasions and attacks on Lebanon.”

Almost immediately after the Civil War, mine clearance began, and efforts were upped after Israel’s withdrawal from the country in May 2000. A program to clear the country of land mines, unexploded ordinances and explosive remnants of war, dubbed Operation Emirates Solidarity after its main funder, got under way in 2000.

Aoun says that between 2004 and 2006, “we were in the last phase” of this operation, and “we were really about to announce that we are making [Lebanon] almost free” of mines, with the exception of the heavily mined Blue Line of withdrawal between Lebanon and Israel, an area that has not been de-mined because of the complicated politics involved.

And then the July 2006 war with Israel came along, and “it brought the cluster bomb problem,” says Aoun. “We had to restart all the efforts again.” The U.N. has reported that Israel dropped some 4 million cluster bombs during the war, mostly in the south.

Resources had to be re-allocated to clearing the now dangerous cluster bomb-filled south. Clearance of cluster bombs, mines, UXOs and ERWs is ongoing there.

But 46.44 million square meters of Lebanese land are still covered with land mines, according to Brigadier General Mohammad Fehmi, the director of the Lebanon Mine Action Center, the army division that heads up the country’s de-mining efforts.

Despite the post-2006 slow down in northern de-mining efforts, there are still some de-mining teams at work in areas including Nahr al-Bared in the north and various areas of Mount Lebanon. But other areas are untouched. The mountaintops of Sannine, for example, were mined during the Civil War.

They are a low-priority, says Fehmi, because they are uninhabited, but they still pose a threat.

Aoun warns of the risks from mines “in mountainous areas, [where] with mud slides mines could move from their place.”

In addition to hazards inherent in mine clearance, clearing Civil War-era land mines has its own set of challenges.

“The real problem,” says Fehmi,” is that there are no maps.” When the Lebanese Army planted mines during the Civil War, he says, they kept records of their locations, making post-war clearance relatively easy. Israel also mapped its land mine placement, and submitted some of its documentation to Lebanon.

But with the multiple militias that operated during the Civil War, maps either were not made or are not at the army’s disposal. This slows clearance work down, and makes “the main problems with mines the militia mines,” says Fehmi. The army and humanitarian de-mining teams are often helped by those who remember where militias were active during the Civil War, Fehmi adds.

Aoun and Fehmi both spoke to The Daily Star as they prepared to leave for Cambodia, where the more-than-150 states party to the Ottawa Treaty will meet. While Lebanon has not joined the convention, it is a member of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, a stance that Steve Goose, chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, earlier this year told The Daily Star was “inconsistent.”

“Lebanon has been quite clear that it has joined [the cluster munitions] convention because it is convinced of the humanitarian harm that cluster munitions cause,” Goose said in September. “Well guess what? Land mines cause the exact same kind of humanitarian harm.”

Fehmi said that the army “works under the spirit of the treaty,” which means it does not use or keep land mines. But the decision to sign the treaty, which would include clearing the Blue Line, is “political,” he says.

As the Cambodia meeting begins, Lebanon may be facing a fresh landmine problem. With protests and violence in Syria entering a ninth month, reports say Syria has been mining the border. President Michel Sleiman confirmed these reports earlier this month, saying Syrian officials had told him they were planted to prevent smuggling and “infiltration.”

At least one Lebanese man, Ayman Owaishi, was wounded by a Syrian-planted mine when he stepped on it near the border town of Wadi Khaled. Fehmi says he is “100 percent sure” there are no mines on the Lebanese side of the border, and says the incident occurred 600 meters inside Syria.

As for the remaining 46 million square meters of mines, not to mention the cluster bombs, Lebanon still has much work to do. Fehmi says the army aims to have the country cleared of cluster bombs by 2016, and of land mines and ERWs by 2021.

But that estimate, he continues, assumes a $20 million annual budget. Currently de-mining operations are proceeding with around 35 to 40 percent of their needs secured until 2015, mostly with donations from the European Union.

And so the country seems unlikely to be cleared by the 2021 goal. “Of course,” at this rate, Fehmi agrees that 2021 is an unlikely target given funding limitations. “It’s logical.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 28, 2011, on page 4.

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