Global curb likely for land mines and lasers

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New controls on the use and transfer of land mines, which kill an estimated 26,000 people a year and disable several times that number, are expected to emerge from the review of the 1980 UN Inhumane Weapons Convention which began in Vienna yesterday. A ban on the use of laser weapons to blind people is also likely.

But although anti-personnel mines have killed far more people than chemical and biological weapons, they will not be outlawed completely, as poison gas and microbes have been. Nor will the use of lasers to pinpoint targets for other weapons be banned, although these can still blind accidentally.

The treaty is likely to be expanded to cover civil wars. The present convention applies only to interstate conflicts, but they are much less common than bloody civil wars such as those in Angola, Cambodia, Bosnia and Chechnya.

The conference is expected to agree that mines should be restricted to clearly marked and fenced areas, although critics say that is unrealistic in internal conflicts between poorly trained and disciplined forces.

Britain's Foreign Office minister, David Davis, is among ministers from 80 countries who began arriving in Vienna yesterday to review the convention, now ratified by 49 nations.

There are about 100 million anti-personnel mines scattered across the globe, and most of the 26,000 people they kill each year are non-combatants, many of them children.

The highest concentration is in Africa, where there are an estimated 20 million uncleared mines from various wars, and in south-east Asia. In Angola 24 people a day are taken to hospital with mine injuries. In Cambodia one person in 236 has had a limb amputated, often as a result of stepping on a mine. That compares with one in 20,000 in Western countries.

Such mines usually disable rather than kill, which places a greater strain on the resources of the countries affected and the international aid agencies.

One of the proposals at the conference would permit the transfer and use of so-called "smart" mines, which can be destroyed from a distance when they are no longer needed, or which destroy themselves after a certain period. But many groups, including the Red Cross, favour a total ban because a proportion of "smart" mines will always fail to destroy themselves. The Saferworld foundation has proposed an agreement that such mines should be permitted only when the failure rate is down to one in 1,000, a level that appears unlikely to be achieved.

Britain no longer manufactures anti-personnel mines and favours restrictions on their transfer and use, placing them in a similar category to nuclear weapons components. However, whereas nuclear weapons technology is still rare and expensive, land mines are simple to make and widespread.

Lasers have been in use for two decades as range-finders, and to "mark" targets, and have become increasingly portable, making a "laser rifle' possible.

A laser rifle powered by a battery which would fit on a soldier's back would emit a beam 50cm (18ins) across and capable of blinding at a range of a kilometre. The weapon would require no ammunition, be silent, and leave no ballistic evidence, making it attractive to terrorists and criminals. Britain is one of 25 countries calling for a ban on such weapons.

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