Britain quits a grisly trade

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The Independent Online
The Government yesterday announced a complete ban on anti-personnel landmines, which kill or maim an estimated 20,000 people a year, mainly in the poorest areas of the world. British stockpiles will be destroyed by 2005 - sooner if an international ban is agreed.

Until then, there will be a moratorium on their use by the Armed Forces. Some mines will be kept to be used "in exceptional circumstances", and only with Parliamentary approval, following pressure from Service chiefs. The ban includes the manufacture, transfer, import, and export of anti- personnel landmines,

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, told MPs yesterday that the mines had caused "enormous carnage", often to innocent civilians and children, and the sooner Britain took a lead in getting rid of them the better.

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said: "Every hour, another three people lose their life or lose a limb from stepping on a landmine.

"Thousands of young children who ran on to a landmine are left unable to run ever again. Landmines have limited military use but create unlimited civilian casualties."

The ban follows a highly successful and emotive campaign led by the Red Cross, which has described the mines as "the most ruthless of terrorists", and which hugely raised the campaign's profile when, Diana, Princess of Wales, visited Angola under its auspices in January.

Pictures of the Princess wearing body armour and a helmet with a visor, learning how to dispose of mines, and of the ghastly injuries inflicted on civilians, particularly children, contributed to growing pressure for a world-wide ban.

So-called "smart" mines, which destroy themselves after a period of time, and which the previous Government was examining as a possible replacement for present mines, are also banned completely - a major victory for campaigners against landmines, who argued that not all "smart" mines can be relied on to self-destruct.

Although Britain has not exported such weapons for years, the Government ban is seen as setting an example to other countries. Mr Cook said Britain would play a fuller part in the Ottawa talks, which are trying to get an international ban on landmines, and will redouble its efforts to get one at the Geneva Conference on disarmament. But the effect on the world's main mine manufacturers - Russia, China and India - may be less.

Ministry of Defence sources yesterday refused to say how many of the three types of anti-personnel mine they still had, because it was an indicator of British military capability, but it is believed to be tens of thousands. The previous government had announced a 40 per cent cut in landmines: the new administration is committed to destroying them all by 2005, but that could be sooner if the 50 countries involved in the Ottawa process agree a ban by the end of the year.

Two British weapons have also been re-defined as anti-personnel mines - the L27 anti-tank mine, which can be set off by a person, and the HB 876 bomb, one of the components of the RAF's airfield busting JP-233.

"It's excellent," said Will McMahon of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. "We obviously welcome it as an opening move by the new government against the arms export trade. We have to see the small print. But the UK is clearly taking a stance internationally."

He added: "We hope it is something the Labour government does in other areas. For example, armoured vehicles to Indonesia".

Tim Carstairs, of the UK Working Group on Landmines, said: "Good - tempered with concern about the moratorium. Is this loophole there in order to use mines? Our experience is that when troops have mines, they use them."

He added: "But the whole concept of mines in the future is kicked out of the door.

"And reclassifying those two mines obviously sends a very important message to companies which might be tempted to try to avoid export controls."

Ruthless terrorists, page 5