Kosovo Landmine Controversy

Mine clearers accused of leaving Kosovo too soon.

Kosovo Landmine Controversy

Mine clearers accused of leaving Kosovo too soon.

UN mine clearers are about to pull out of Kosovo, in spite of claims that the province is still littered with deadly unexploded ordinance.

There are rumours that they are leaving because of growing funding difficulties.

UNMACC, the UN Mine Action Coordination Mission, announced recently that after almost three years of work in Kosovo - and after clearing 23,000 landmines and 7,500 other unexploded weapons - its task was virtually complete.

The UN body declared that 96 per cent of all known mines in the province had been removed and that by November Kosovo would be as "mine-free as Western countries like Belgium, Germany or France".

But some NGO workers in the province vehemently disagree with the UN body's conclusions.

Kosovar Artur Tigani, of Norwegian People's Aid, who supervises a mine clearance team in Kosovo, recently found anti-personnel devices in a field only 100 yards from the village of Deva, in Kosovo's western mountains. "I discovered this mine field just a few days ago," he said this week. "It was not reported and there may well be others like it."

Years after the fighting between the Yugoslav army and the KLA stopped, mines planted by both sides in the conflict continue to kill and main innocent civilians.

Since July 1999, when NATO forces entered Kosovo until the end of last year, 86 people were killed and 351 injured from mines and other unexploded ordinance. Many involved in the work of clearing them have also paid with severe injuries and lost limbs. Tigani knows one friend and colleague who lost a foot.

The Norwegian official's findings, reported to the daily newspaper Koha Ditore, have caused embarrassment to UNMACC. Bolstering their claim that their task was nearly finished, John Flanagan, the organisation's program manager, responded by saying "only' six incidents involving mines had taken place in Kosovo in 2001".

Part of the problem is that no one knows where all the mines lie. According to an agreement between international peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, and the departing Yugoslav army, maps of all minefields laid in the province had to be handed over to the province's new international authority.

UNMACC and other experts subsequently concluded that although the Yugoslavs surrendered correct maps, they still did not provide a complete picture of the presence of mines in the province, as they left out ordinance laid by Serb paramilitary groups and the KLA.

Two significant minefields, which were never reported by the Yugoslav army, are still being cleared as the clock ticks towards the November deadline, when UNMACC will hand the baton to the Kosova Protection Corps, KPC, a local organisation with a personnel drawn from former ethnic Albanian guerrilla groups.

The KPC teams will receive training in mine clearance from the humanitarian organisation Handicap International. Fadil Zejnullahu, a KPC official, said he was proud to be taking on the task after the international groups pull out. "It is a big responsibility but after the training I think we will be ready," he said.

While UNMACC insists they are pulling out because their work in Kosovo is done, suspicions remain that an extra incentive behind their departure is lack of money, stemming from the fact that Kosovo no longer dominates the world's headlines.

A source from within the organisation confirmed the normal pattern was that as soon as the big donor states stopped funding projects in a particular part of the world, everybody else followed suit and funding dried up.

According to Bajram Krasniqi, a UNMACC official, around 10 milion US dollars had been donated for mine clearance, but he could not say how much of that was left.

Flanagan flatly denied money problems played any part in UNMACC's calculations, however. "We are going because we finished the job," he said.

Tigani himself is soon being withdrawn. Although he was initially told his mission would last several years more, he has learned he will only be drawing his salary in the province for a few extra months, owing to funding problems in his NGO.

Virtyt Gacaferi is international editor of Pristina daily Koha Ditore.

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