Britain helps to block a global ban on mines

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The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been forced to abandon its hopes for a total ban on anti- personnel mines from next year after opposition from Britain and other arms-exporting nations. The ICRC president, Cornelio Sommaruga, said he had been told the idea was 'utopian'.

The ICRC had hoped to win international agreement for a ban on anti-personnel mines at a conference scheduled in Geneva in 1995 to review the 1980 United Nations Weapons Convention.

The munitions which the Red Cross wants to ban include blast mines, which blow off lower limbs, and fragmentation mines, which scatter shrapnel.

Variations are mines activated by tripwires and mines that shoot canisters of explosive into the air to inflict head injuries.

Now the Red Cross has had to concede that a total prohibition on those weapons will have to remain a long-term aim. Instead, it is backing a series of lesser measures, some of which have attracted support from Britain.

Mr Sommaruga met the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, in London this week but failed to win British support for an outright ban. 'I insisted and I continue to insist on the need for a total ban on anti-personnel mines,' he said. 'I have been told all too often that this is utopian. But I am not ready to give up because we at the Red Cross see every day the horrific, disastrous, consequences of these weapons.'

Commercial self-interest and the wish to retain a range of military options have dictated a less than enthusiastic attitude from Britain towards an all-embracing treaty ban.

'Our view remains that landmines can play a legitimate defensive role if used in accordance with the rules,' a Foreign Office spokesman said. Britain was ready to agree that all anti-personnel mines should contain an effective self-destruct mechanism.

This stipulation is now at the top of a list of measures which the ICRC considers should be the 'very least' adopted by the 1995 review conference.

It would also suit British companies, which do not at present export mines but who could be in the forefront of the business should international law prescribe a new regime of 'smart mines'.

'The policy is totally manufacturer-led,' said Rae McGrath of the Mines Advisory Group, a humanitarian agency. 'And the fact is that these self-destruct mechanisms don't always work.'

The issue will next be discussed at a preparatory meeting in January ahead of the review conference.

Other compromises the ICRC wants to see include a ban on mines that are not easily detectable, because the new generation of plastic ones can prove almost impossible to find and make safe after a war.