US shift isolates Britain on land mines

Britain looks increasingly isolated among Western countries over its opposition to a total ban on the manufacture and export of anti-personnel mines after signs that the US might shift its stance and back the ban.

There are an estimated 100 million anti-personnel mines scattered round the world and they kill an estimated 20,000 people a year. Twenty-four countries have called for a total ban, as have the UN Secretary General, the European Parliament, the Organisation of African Unity and the Pope. Last week the Netherlands renounced the use of mines and France recently prohibited their production and export.

Britain and the US have opposed a ban on the grounds it would be ineffective with so many mines already in circulation and because anti-personnel mines have a role as defensive weapons provided their positions are accurately recorded.

But last week the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, ordered a review of the US military's position. He said he was "inclined to eliminate all anti-personnel land-mines". Yesterday British diplomatic sources played down his words, saying the US was unlikely to change its view that, properly used, land-mines were legitimate weapons of war and that the State Department was likely to oppose any change.

At the end of last year the UN's review conference on inhumane weapons failed to agree a ban on anti-personnel mines, although it did agree a ban on laser weapons designed to damage the human eye.

The conference is due to meet again next month and British diplomatic sources said they would press for tighter restrictions on the use of mines and also for any new mines to be made so they would self-destruct after a certain period.

The Red Cross - which backs a total ban on the manufacture, transfer and use of anti-personnel mines - and other groups, say self-destructing mines are unreliable and a ban is the only solution. "It's an all-or- nothing position, really," the Red Cross said.

The British Government does not agree. "We haven't gone hell for leather for a complete ban," a diplomatic source said. "In any case, you won't get anywhere with the countries who are the real problem. It's no good having a pious conference of countries who don't do any harm anyway. What we're looking for is practical improvement."

Any ban would only affect anti-personnel mines, and not the bigger, anti- tank mines.

Anti-personnel mines are designed to maim, rather than kill, and have resulted in large numbers of amputees in Cambodia and Africa. They are particularly dangerous to children and animals.

Though proper military procedure demands that mines be laid in marked minefields, most of the people who use mines - including the former warring factions in Bosnia - do not always bother.

Britain ceased the export and manufacture of anti-personnel mines in 1982, although British mines dating from before then have been found in Afghanistan.