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One by one, Laos's cluster bombs legacy goes up in smoke

by Staff Writers
Xieng Khuang, Laos (AFP) Nov 9, 2010
From a distance, the field appears to be scattered with pink body bags.

The bulky bags have been placed around bomblets which, four decades after the CIA's "secret war" in Laos, still pose a hazard and are about to be destroyed.

Bomb disposal technicians uncovered the 56 cluster bomb submunitions, each about the size of a tennis ball, lying just below the surface of the earth in Xieng Khuang province.

Laos is the most heavily bombed nation per capita, and Xieng Khuang was among the most severely hit of all, according to officials.

In the province's Paxay district alone there were 13,500 bombing missions which released more than six million cluster bomblets, according to Laos's National Regulatory Authority (NRA), which coordinates work on unexploded ordnance (UXOs).

Some of them landed around Paxay's Nasom village which UXO Lao, the national agency for UXO clearance, is trying to clean up.

"They're very small but very deadly," says John Dingley, UXO Lao's senior technical adviser from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The heavy pink bags form a protective wall around each of the exposed bomblets, which UXO Lao technicians have wired for destruction across an area about the size of two football fields.

Citing United States Air Force data, the NRA said more than two million tons of ordnance was dropped on the country between 1964 and 1973, when the US war in neighbouring Vietnam spilled into Laos, where the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) directed operations that the US government tried to keep secret.

Among the weapons dropped were 270 million cluster bomblets, which had an average failure rate of 30 percent, the NRA said.

Since the end of the war, more than 22,000 people in Laos have been killed or wounded by UXOs including cluster bomblets, the NRA said.

Worldwide, cluster bombs are estimated to have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians.

More than 1,000 government officials, charity workers, and survivors of the bombs gather in the Laotian capital Vientiane on Tuesday for the first meeting of states that are party to the convention banning cluster bombs.

The gathering aims to speed up efforts to rid the world of the weapons.

On Monday UXO Lao put on a demonstration of its work for members of the foreign military, diplomats and other delegates who will attend the meeting.

Boualin, who heads a UXO Lao clearance team, said they have been working in Nasom village since September to remove the hazards from more than 75,000 square metres of land that will be used for farming.

"So far we have cleared more than 10,000 square metres" and found 170 leftover bombs, mostly cluster bomblets, he told the delegation.

They divide the land into grids which they sweep with metal detectors to find the bombs, that are carefully exposed using a digging tool.

Then the cluster munitions are blown up where they lie.

"One. Two. Three," a technician calls before detonation. The bombs explode in a cloud of black smoke.

"I'm very proud, even if it's very dangerous," Boualin, a native of the region, says later. "I can help a lot of people in this area."

Dingley, of UNDP, felt similarly.

"We make a difference immediately," said the former British soldier, who has spent almost five years in Laos. "In some countries you're clearing and, literally, the guys are behind you ploughing the fields" as soon as demolition is finished.

Foreign delegates who watched the demonstration said it brought home the enormity of Laos's challenge.

"Sad, sad," said a government representative from Mozambique, after seeing the cluster bomb field before its demolition.

"I'm quite impressed with the operation the Lao government is undertaking. It's a huge, huge undertaking," said Prince Mired of Jordan, who has been active in de-mining issues and is attending the Vientiane conference as an observer.

Laos is one of the most affected countries, but others are also dealing with a legacy of cluster bombs.

"It's a very huge problem also in Lebanon," where Israel dropped cluster munitions in its 2006 war against Hezbollah, said Brigadier General Mohammad Fehmi, of the Lebanon Mine Action Centre.

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Global talks in Laos seek quicker removal of cluster bombs
Vientiane (AFP) Nov 9, 2010
A conference that begins in Laos on Tuesday aims to speed up efforts to rid the world of cluster bombs, which are estimated to have killed or wounded tens of thousands of civilians. More than 1,000 government officials, charity workers and survivors of the bombs will gather for the first meeting of states that are party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which became international law o ... read more

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