BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia’s FARC rebels and the government should immediately reach an agreement on landmine clearance as part of ongoing peace talks in an effort to reduce the number of victims, a leading anti-landmine group said.
According to the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines (CCCM), rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), during a 50-year war against the government, are responsible for planting most of the landmines and unexploded ordnance devices found across the country, mostly in rural areas.
The conflict has made the South American country one of the most mine-scarred in the world, with one of the highest landmine casualty rates.
As the Colombian government and FARC commanders hold ongoing peace talks in Havana - without a ceasefire on either side - the country’s landmine victim tally continues to rise.
Since peace talks began in November 2012 to end five decades of war, 607 Colombians have been killed or injured by landmines, according to CCCM, a leading anti-mine group in Colombia.
“We need a special agreement on anti-personnel landmines now … we must make progress even before the signing of any (peace) agreement,” Alvaro Jimenez, head of CCCM, said in a statement.
“We’re proposing that peace negotiators in Havana create a special agreement on landmines in order to remove devices and explosives remnants of war in affected areas for the welfare of communities,” he said.
Proposals for a special agreement sent by the anti-mine group to peace negotiators in Havana urge both sides to agree to demine areas near schools, sources of water and farmland used by local communities in Colombia’s southern provinces of Caqueta and Putumayo. They also call for demining in the landmine-ridden provinces of Choco, Antioquia and Meta, where fighting between rebels and government forces has been concentrated in recent years.
According to the latest government figures, 6,621 members of the armed forces and 4,152 civilians, of whom 1,068 are children, have been either wounded or killed by mine explosions since 1990, the date when officials started recording data on landmine victims.
CHEAP WEAPON OF WAR
In the past decade, the leftist rebels have increased the use of homemade landmines, CCCM said. Often made from tins of tuna, plastic containers and soft drink bottles, landmines provide the rebels a cheap weapon of war to repel government troops, slow them down and destroy troop morale.
The drug-running FARC rebels also plant mines in and around coca fields - the raw ingredient of cocaine - to protect their valuable crop grown mainly in rural and jungle areas.
Even if the government and FARC reach a peace accord, clearing all the landmines and improvised explosive devices that litter Colombia would take more than a decade, CCCM estimates. The biggest challenge is lack of information about where and how many mines are planted across the country.
As a signatory of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, Colombia agreed to clear the country of mines by 2021. In recent years, demining in Colombia has focused on clearing mines placed by the state military around 35 of their bases to hold off rebel groups. Humanitarian mine-clearing is still in its early stages, and is largely confined to areas where government troops have secure territorial control.
Government figures show nearly a quarter of Colombia’s population of 46 million has suffered in some way as a result of the country’s 50-year-war between the leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary groups and government armed forces.
A new round of Havana peace talks are now focused on how to honour and compensate Colombia's war victims including landmine victims.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson: email@example.com)