Reuters International

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is welcome by Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

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VIENTIANE (Reuters) - The United States announced on Tuesday it would provide an additional $90 million (67.61 million pounds) over the next three years to help Laos, heavily bombed during the Vietnam War, clear unexploded ordnance, which have killed or injured more than 20,000 people.

The figure announced during President Barack Obama's first visit to Laos is close to the $100 million the United States has spent in the past 20 years on clearing its UXO in Laos.

From 1964 to 1973, U.S. warplanes dropped more than 270 million cluster munitions on the communist country, one-third of which did not explode, according to the Lao National Regulatory Authority for UXO.

Obama became the first U.S. president to visit Laos when he arrived in the once-isolated country on Monday to attend two regional summits, half a century after America's "secret war" left Laos with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

The White House said in a statement U.S. programmes in Laos had helped slash UXO casualties from 300 to less than 50 a year and the additional funding would be for 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," the Office of the Press Secretary said in a statement.

The package would help support UXO victims needing rehabilitation services, including orthotics and prosthetics, it said.

UXO remains a stubborn problem in the Indochina region and experts say it could take decades to clear landmines and bombs in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which were beset by conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s, and in Cambodia's case, in the 1980s and 1990s too.

In the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang, the area most heavily bombed by U.S. aircraft during the war in neighbouring Vietnam, the bombings have left a trail of devastation.

Landlocked Laos remains largely agricultural with about 80 percent of its people reliant on the land, but some of it is simply too dangerous to farm.

Approximately 25 percent of the country's villages are contaminated with unexploded ordnance, according to the British-based Mines Advisory Group which helps find and destroy the bombs.

Obama is expected to visit the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitor Center in the capital, Vientiane, on Wednesday. The organisation works with people disabled by unexploded ordnance.

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton; Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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