President Obama announces $90m to help clear unexploded US bombs in Laos

From 1964 to 1973 Laos was targeted by one US bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day

US will pay $90m to help the victims of America's secret war in Laos

It was America’s dirty secret – a military campaign that most in the US knew very little about even years after its conclusion.

Between 1964 to 1973, Laos became the most bombed country per capita, as the US military dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on the country as part its broader fight against the Viet Cong. An estimated third of these bombs and so-called bomblets did not explode, leaving a deadly legacy half buried in fields and jungles where they continue to pose a terrible danger to civilians.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit the South East Asian nation, announced a further $90m (£67m) to help those maimed or injured by the unexploded ordnance and to pay for further clear-up efforts.

Mr Obama was the first sitting US president to visit Laos

Some details of the secret war remained classified until as recently as 2000, but there were more than 580,000 bombing missions on Laos from 1964 to 1973 – the equivalent to one bombing mission every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.

In a speech in the capital, Vientiane, Mr Obama spoke of America’s military operations, and of the efforts to hide them from both the American people and the wider world.

“As a result of that conflict many people fled or were driven from their homes. At the time America did not acknowledge its role,” he said, according to Reuters. “I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”

The White House said that US programmes in Laos had helped slash unexploded ordnance (UXO) casualties from 300 a year to around 50. The money announced would go towards a “comprehensive UXO survey of Laos and for continued clearing operations”.

“The United States is helping Laos clear unexploded ordnance, which poses a threat to people and hampers economic development,” it said in a statement.

The threat of UXO remains a problem across parts of South East Asia, where the US dropped huge amounts of ordnance, not just in Laos, but in Vietnam and Cambodia as well. Around half of those killed or injured are children.

In the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang, the area most heavily bombed by US aircraft during the war in neighbouring Vietnam, there is a trail of devastation. Around 80 per cent of people rely on agriculture, but much of it is too dangerous to farm.

One survivor of a blast from a piece of old US ordnance was Soud. Now aged 40, he was just 10 when he was farming with his family when his spade hit a bomb, triggering an explosion that blinded and maimed him.

His mother, Thongsy, 75, said she remembered the day vividly.

Staff from MAG have been clearing ordnance - a third of which did not explode

“I heard an explosion and then I saw my child lying there. The villagers helped carry him to the nearest hospital by foot,” she told Reuters. “They had to cut off his hand. I was crying.”

Approximately a quarter of its villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance, said the British-based Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which helps find and destroy the bombs.

On Tuesday, MAG’s country director, Simon Rea, said the new money would help continue efforts at clearing up those parts of the country where there was still danger.

“This is extremely welcome news and will enable tremendous strides forward in helping Laos to become free from the bombs that continue to threaten the lives and livelihoods of ordinary people,” he said.

“So many communities in Laos have no choice but to risk their lives on a daily basis going about their everyday activities – farmers digging their land, families building new homes, communities undertaking infrastructure development – while children continue to be those who are most at risk of death or injury from bombs dropped decades before they were even born.”

Experts say the link between UXO contamination and poverty is striking: 41 out of the 45 poorest districts in Laos are those most affected by the contamination.

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