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Army sends demining equipment to Lebanon

Swiss experts participate in demining operations around the world.

(Swiss Armed Forces)

The Swiss defence ministry is sending SFr60,000 ($48,000) of demining equipment to southern Lebanon following an urgent request for assistance from the United Nations.

The move comes as aid agencies warn that large amounts of unexploded ordnance from the month-long conflict pose a major threat to civilians trying to return home.

Markus Schefer, head of the army's mine action unit, told swissinfo that a first batch of 1,300 explosive charges used for the disposal of dud munitions would be dispatched to the region immediately.

"Unexploded munitions are a big problem in southern Lebanon. There are serious humanitarian problems for returning IDPs [internally displaced persons]. They are going back to their bombed houses, looking for things and coming into contact with unexploded ordnance," said Schefer.

Cluster bombs scatter bomblets the size of batteries over a wide area but some experts say that up to 30 per cent of the cluster munitions dropped by Israel failed to explode. The Swiss branch of the non-governmental group, Handicap International, puts the figure at 14 per cent.

The exact scale of the problem in southern Lebanon is still unclear as new bomb sites are being identified by the day.

According to the Lebanese military, 12 people have been killed and 51 wounded by cluster bomb explosions since the ceasefire began on August 14.

On Wednesday three Lebanese bomb disposal experts were killed by a cluster bomb in the village of Tebnin, around 15 kilometres from the Israeli border.

Mine clearance

The Swiss army's demining material, developed by Bern-based armaments group Ruag, enables hands-free clearance of mines and unexploded shells. Schefer said the equipment would improve safety for those doing demining work and speed up clearing affected areas.

The Swiss army is sending a demining expert to train personnel in the use of Ruag's small explosive ordnance disposal (SM-EOD) equipment.

It is also extending the mission of another army specialist who has been in Lebanon for two years working with the UN to map mines left during the previous conflict in the country.

"This is a fast emergency response and we may send more EOD experts and more equipment once we have evaluated the situation on the ground," added Schefer.

"We think the task of clearing Lebanon of unexploded ordnance could take at least months, if not years."

The UN Mine Action Coordination Centre (Unmacc) in southern Lebanon said on Friday that the number of cluster bomb strike locations was growing by around 30 a day.

"At the moment we have located 288 cluster bomb strikes across south Lebanon, but our teams are adding new locations every day," spokeswoman Dalya Farran told swissinfo.

"It's a huge problem. A lot of houses are contaminated, and the more people who return, the greater potential for accidents."

In a fact sheet issued earlier this week, the UN urged parents to be especially vigilant for unexploded ordnance.

The Lebanese army has distributed some 100,000 leaflets and 10,000 posters at checkpoints. Radio and television adverts are also warning people of the dangers of live munitions in a massive public education campaign.

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont

Key facts

Swiss Solidarity, the fund-raising arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, is raising money to help child victims in the Middle East.
Donations can be made online (see link below) or to Post Office account: 10-15000-6, marked "Child victims of war".

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In brief

The Swiss army spends around SFr16 million ($13 million) a year on demining operations around the world.

Since 1997, the army's mine action unit has been active in Albania, Bosnia, Burundi, Eritrea, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Chad.

The army has also sent SM-EOD equipment to Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Yemen, Chile, Croatia and Kosovo to assistance in the clearance of unexploded ordnance.

The UN has been using an information system developed by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining to collate data on unexploded ordnance in Lebanon.

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