Indian arms embargo hits landmine defusing in Nepal


Kathmandu : An arms embargo India announced after King Gyanendra seized power two years ago remains in place, hindering humanitarian work, though Nepal has now embraced democracy.

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It was in 2005, after the army-backed coup, Nepal's biggest arms donor India froze lethal assistance and diplomatic ties to pressure the king into restoring democracy.

When an uprising ousted the royal regime in April 2006, New Delhi extended a warmer hand of friendship to the new multiparty government. But the arms embargo remains in place and it is now affecting humanitarian tasks.

After the Maoists signed a peace pact last year and joined the government, there is an urgent need of equipment to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and landmines.

During the insurgency, the Nepal Army planted 12,500 mines around army bases in the remote districts to protect them from Maoist attacks.

On their part, the guerrillas stored thousands of IEDs in "safe houses" in villages.

India began arming the Nepal government to combat the Maoist insurgency. Besides its indigenous Insas family of firearms, New Delhi also gave Nepal equipment to defuse IEDs, the main weapon used by the guerrillas, and explosive accessories.

When the 10-year "People's War" formally ended, the Maoists tried to collect their scattered IEDs and locked them up under UN supervision.

However, a large number of IEDs and mines still remain hidden in over 50 of Nepal's 75 districts, creating a severe risk.

"More people have been killed and injured (by IEDs) in 2006, the year the peace pact was signed, than in 2005 when the conflict was still on," says Hugues Laurenge, a consultant with Unicef that along with international and local organisations and other UN agencies has formed the Mine Action Group (MAG).

MAG has been active in Nepal since 2004 to create awareness about recognising the presence and dangers of explosive devices and how to minimise loss of limbs and lives.

According to MAG, while 142 civilians were injured or killed when they unknowingly activated IEDs or landmines in 2005, the figure rose to 169 in 2006. This year, 67 casualties were reported till May.

"With peace, there is more movement," says Laurenge. "There is more freedom of movement and people can now go to remote areas, near security installations.

"People exposed to explosive devices over the years are eager to get rid of them, sometimes, they have been known to throw bombs in the river or maybe garbage or even fire.

"Almost 54 percent of the casualties are children. This makes Nepal, along with Laos, the foremost countries with a high rate of child casualties."

When the peace pact was signed, it was agreed that all explosives would be destroyed in 60 days.

The army formed a Mine Action Coordination Centre that verified the mine sites, put additional markers to alert people and strengthened the fencing round them.

However, Brigadier General Lok Bahadur Thapa Magar, director of engineers at Nepal Army, says the work to destroy explosives is slow going.

The army is handicapped by lack of funds, training and equipment.

Currently, it has about 12 mine disposal teams. Though the plan is to have 25 teams, there is not enough protective equipment to go around. It recently received some assistance from the UK but still more support is needed.

Also, the highest international safety standards have to be followed.

"Military operations are quicker since they are time bound," Magar says. "But this is humanitarian work and needs to be cent percent safe."

On Thursday, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala held a cabinet meeting that decided to form a committee under the newly constituted peace and reconstruction ministry to address the issue of land mines.

It is expected to look at means of funding and urge donors to help.

"De-mining is a pre-requisite for holding the (November) election," says Magar. "An election means free movement of people. So we need to clear areas of mines or at least tell people they are unsafe."