Malakal minefields still a challenge

Hundreds of mines have been destroyed in Malakal, Upper Nile State of Southern Sudan, but more than half the town’s minefields have yet to be cleared, says an official.



"The town is in the minefield," Doep du Plessis, UN Mine Action (UNMAO) officer in Malakal, said. "We find mines inside the houses… many people are not aware that they have a mine on their doorstep."



Two demining teams are working in the town and expect to complete the job by June 2010. About 1.3 million sqm of mined land has been cleared but another 1.5 million remain. A Cambodian team has just arrived to boost operations.



"Malakal is the highest priority, especially the Malakal minefield," Du Plessis told IRIN. At least 526 anti-personnel mines of 44 types have so far been destroyed in the town. The work is made more tedious because the mines are plastic and cannot be detected easily.



Demining in Upper Nile is done for eight months, and then temporarily suspended during rainy season. While the rains restrict demining activity, they soften the soil and make it easy for the mines to be triggered.



"In the dry season the soil is so compacted that you cannot activate a mine," the UNMAO official said. "During the wet season, you step on it and pop, it goes."



Malakal County, like many areas of Upper Nile State, was a key battlefield during the war, which ended with the signing of the 2005 peace agreement. The agreement triggered the return to Southern Sudan of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people from the North.



The mines and other ordnance were planted by the Southern Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudan national army - the latter mainly in areas bordering Malakal and the former in other Upper Nile counties such as Baliet and Nassir.



UNMAO was also concerned about Nassir town in Upper Nile, where 250kg of aircraft bombs were dropped during the war. The bombs, including one in a petrol station, sank into the mud but could be triggered by a fire.



Other areas include Malut, Renk and Akobo in Jonglei State. "In Akobo, there are UXOs [unexploded ordnance] lying around," Du Plessis told IRIN. Efforts to clear Akobo have, however, been hampered by a June attack on boats on the Sobat River, which has temporarily stopped water traffic.



"We cannot cross the Sobat River with our machines because of that attack," Du Plessis added.



Demining in Sudan is critical in facilitating mobility, the return of populations, deployment of peacekeeping assets and delivery of humanitarian assistance. The problem affects 19 out of the 25 states in Southern Sudan.



According to UNMAO, the true extent of Sudan’s mine problem is unknown, but since 2002 more than 29,000km of roads have been opened. About 45 million sqm of land have also been cleared and over 16,000 anti-personnel and anti-tank mines destroyed.



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