US cancels laser weapon that can cause blindness

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Defence Correspondent

The United States has cancelled a new laser weapon after an international ban on laser devices specifically designed to blind people came into force on Thursday. But a conference on "inhumane weapons" in Vienna failed to agree on the other main issue - anti-personnel mines - and human rights groups also criticised the laser ban for not going far enough.

The Foreign Office hopes the review conference on the 1980 Inhumane Weapons Convention will reconvene in December, after the 35 nations taking part have had time to consider their positions. David Davis, a Foreign Office minister, yesterday said he was disappointed that the talks had been suspended. "We are determined the convention should be strengthened to bring an end to the irresponsible use of anti-personnel landmines," he said. "But the determined obstruction of a number of countries has made this impossible."

Whereas laser blinding weapons are a new form of warfare, as yet unused, land mines kill an estimated 26,000 people a year. Millions are scattered across Africa and South-east Asia, where they have been favoured by Third World regimes because they are a cheap but highly effective way of denying territory to an opponent. But they remain years after conflicts have ended, and are particularly dangerous to farmers, children and animals.

Western countries, including Britain, want tight controls on manufacturing and exporting anti-personnel mines and want them to self-destruct after a set period.

However, a number of countries which still manufacture and use such mines have resisted detailed negotiations. They are understood to include Russia, China, Pakistan, India and Mexico. "Better to suspend it and spend time banging a few heads together," a British diplomatic source said of the conference. One dispute was over verification: Western countries want to be able to carry out inspections, like those specified in other armaments treaties.

The conference passed a protocol prohibiting the use and transfer of weapons designed to cause permanent blindness to the naked eye. But it permits laser weapons to be used against optical instruments, which could cause blindness indirectly. The US-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the ban but said "the protocol is seriously flawed, because it allows an entire category of possible weapons to escape possible regulation".

The US immediately announced it was cancelling its new "Laser Countermeasure System", which is primarily aimed at optical instruments and other sensors, but which it accepted was also dangerous to the human eye.