after kosovo equipment mining miners scramble

June 24, 1999 – UN survey reports that there are around 800 minefields in Kosovo. NATO plans to start repatriating Kosovo refugees from Albania from July 1. Graphic shows main Yugoslav mines and de-mining techniques.

The fields of the devil have replaced the fields of blackbirds in Kosovo. Hundreds of thousands of landmines, as well as hundreds of unexploded NATO bombs have made the province the most dangerous place in the world for the 370,000 refugees who have started returning to their homes. The race is on to identify the locations of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, and unexploded ordnance as swiftly as possible, so refugees can be back in their homes to prepare for the hardships of winter in five months time.

Once snow blankets Kosovo, maps of minefields NATO have obtained from the Serb military and Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas become less reliable, making the search harder the longer it goes on. “Kosovo is a very, very dangerous place because of mines,” said British Brigadier John Hoskinson, who is in overall charge of the mammoth mine-clearing operation.

In the first week of the NATO-led push into the Serbian province two Italian soldiers were wounded by mines near the western city of Pec and two British Army Gurkha engineers and two civilians died while clearing explosives from a school in a village southwest of Pristina. Doctors in the southern city of Prizren have treated 18 people for landmine-related injuries. Half of them have lost one or both legs, doctors said. Three children – aged 7, 8 and 17 – have died of their injuries. Hoskinson said the border areas were the most heavily mined, with barely any stretch free from the weapons.

“We just can’t give you an estimate of when we can say it will be safe to travel,” Hoskinson said.

There are some 800 mine-ridden areas in Kosovo. So far, Serb forces have handed over only two maps locating minefields. Mine clearing is a dangerous, slow and expensive business. When the push into Kosovo started it took French forces eight hours to work their way through a single 120 metre-wide minefield. Following the end of the 1991 Gulf War, 84 people perished clearing mines – compared to 240 coalition fatalities during the entire ground war.

The most deadly mines deployed by Serb forces in Kosovo include the anti personnel PROM-1 and the anti-tank TMRP-6.

The PROM-1 is a “bounding” fragmentation mine which is normally tripwire activated. Pressure on the fuze prongs or tripwire activates a propellant charge which fires the device up to waist height. The mine then explodes. The main charge of almost half a kilogram of TNT sends hundreds of shrapnel fragments in all directions. It is lethal to a range of 20 metres.

The TMRP-6 is a green, plastic anti-tank mine armed with a 5.1 kilogram TNT shaped charge. The charge – shaped like the concave base of a champagne bottle – focuses the blast force straight ahead and can penetrate 40mm of armour. The mine can operate with a tilt rod or tripwire to widen its area of attack.

There is no standard method of locating the hidden killers. De-mining teams work on limited stretches using metal detectors, or failing that inching their way on their stomachs, probing the ground at a 30 degree angle with thin metal rods or knives – extremely nerve-racking if the ground is hard. Each square metre is probed some 400 times. Once a mine is located the area is marked either with bright plastic tape or indelible dye. On ideal terrain a two-man team can clear up to a 7-metre square in a day.

A PROM-1 must be neutralized by carefully inserting a plastic safety collar around the fuze. This stops the pressure-sensitive prongs from being depressed, allows the fuze to be unscrewed and the mine lifted for destruction elsewhere.

Since the TMRP-6 cannot be fully disarmed – the detonator is integral to the charge and a “booby trap” auxiliary fuze is located in the base – this mine needs to be destroyed in-situ.

Many methods have been used to clear mines, ranging from explosive hoses fired over minefields by small rockets to heavy chain flails, mine-guzzlers – specially adapted tanks which harmlessly detonate or chew up mines – and even driving cattle across fields.

Explosive de-mining devices utilize inexpensive perforator shaped charges used by the oil exploration industry. The $12 charge attached to a small tripod can be triggered remotely or by a simple fixed time delay fuze. Risks from booby traps are reduced because the charge is never in direct contact with the mine.

Neutralization foam provides an alternative way to mark and remove landmines safely. Brightly coloured polyurethane foam is squirted over the exposed mine. The foam hardens around exposed parts of the mine and fuze and renders it safe in the same way as a plastic safety collar. The hardened foam also acts as an adhesive to “glue” rope to the exposed mine so that de-miners can remove mines suspected of being booby-trapped. The system costs around $10 per mine. Alternatively, explosive foam is used as a blasting agent to destroy mines in place. The nitromethane based explosive is sprayed from a backpack and detonated remotely. This system, currently in use in Bosnia-Herzegovina, costs about $10 per mine.

Currently under test is chemical neutralization, designed to reduce shrapnel when mines are destroyed in place. The system, which can be used against mines containing TNT-based explosives, uses a special “gun” to fire a bullet to penetrate the mine case. The bullet is immediately followed by the chemical – diethylenetriamine – which destroys the explosive in a super-high temperature reaction without detonating the mine.

On the horizon are systems utilising radar, ultrasound and infra-red which can detect buried objects.

Man’s best friend has also been called upon to uncover the lethal legacy of war. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Africa dogs have been trained to locate plastic mines, tripwires in areas of dense vegetation and detect explosive materials emitted from mines buried for extended periods of time. Under handler control, the free-leash dogs operate in suspected mined areas and alert the handler that they have detected a mine or tripwire by sitting within one metre of the detection.

Meanwhile in Kosovo the process of clearing land mines and booby-traps is proceeding slowly. German peacekeeping troops deployed in Prizren have their hands full just trying to establish law and order. “We are still clearing mines and booby-traps from our own places,” German General Fritz von Korff said. “We haven’t begun to clear big minefields yet.”

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