The Niger army says it has seized a stockpile of more than 1,000 anti-personnel landmines it found abandoned on the Niger-Chad border. If confirmed as anti-personnel mines, this would be the first time such a large quantity of these outlawed mines, intended to maim and kill individuals rather than blow up vehicles, has been discovered in Niger.
Both the Niger army and rebels have admitted using anti-vehicle mines, but deny using anti-personnel mines, in an on-going conflict that has claimed at least 300 lives and displaced more than ten thousand in the north.
In 1999, Niger’s government adopted the International Mine Ban Treaty, also known as the Ottawa Convention, which bans anti-personnel (AP) mines.
AP mines are generally used to target people because it takes as little as five kilograms to detonate one, as opposed to anti-vehicle mines which require a much greater weight. Pressure, a tripwire, or remote control can set off these hard-to-detect mines that can instantaneously amputate or kill a passer by.
AP mine causes fatality
Mai Moctar Kassouma, the president of the Niger government’s Commission for the Collection and the Control of Illicit Weapons, said the army found in eastern Niger a stockpile of hidden, abandoned weapons, including 1,042 AP mines this past July.
While moving the weapons to a military storage barrack in Diffa, Kassouma said a mine accidentally detonated, killing those in the transporting vehicle.
“We are talking about black market, poor quality mines we did not neutralise correctly. They may have been unearthed for resale by smugglers.”
Kassouma said he is not sure whether it was an anti-vehicular mine or AP mine that detonated, but says he is sure it was an AP mine that caused another deadly explosion in Goure on 24 August.
According to Kassouma, the fatal AP mine got mixed in with a stockpile of weapons that ex-rebels were surrendering in a handover ceremony, and caused dozens of injuries and at least one death when a participant stepped on it.
Kassouma says he is not aware of any AP mines that have been planted in Niger during the past year and a half of renewed rebel violence. He added that no international mine experts have evaluated the mines to confirm they are anti-personnel mines.
In February 2007, Niger desert rebels re-launched a decades old conflict against the Niger government demanding more community resources and uranium revenue.
Surge in landmine deaths
As of June 2008, landmine attacks had killed dozens, and wounded about 120, including civilians, according to Niger’s government and international monitors.
Monitors have documented only the use of anti-vehicle mines during this conflict; landmines were largely absent during the last wave of desert violence in the 1990s.
In June 2008, a de-mining commission headed by Kassouma issued a statement declaring Niger free of AP mines. But Kassouma said this statement was never definitive, given the on-going conflict.
“Traffickers are taking advantage of this conflict to try and sell their weapons here, knowing they have a market. Our June 2008 statement qualified that as long as there is conflict, we cannot say AP mines will not appear in Niger.”
Banned, but still available
Though more than 150 countries have adopted the Mine Ban Treaty, the Geneva-based non-governmental organisation International Campaign to Ban Landmines reports there are still 13 producers of AP mines.
Even in countries that have signed the treaty, like Niger’s neighbour Chad, de-mining efforts have been under-funded and delayed by lack of accurate surveys and sporadic, on-going violence between various rebel fronts and the government.
As of 2007, Chad government officials reported clearing 10 square kilometres of an estimated 1,000 square kilometres that may have mines.
Allegation of AP mine build-up
The main Tuareg-led rebel faction, Movement of Nigeriens for Justice, accuses the Niger government of stockpiling AP mines for combat. Rebel leader Aghaly Ag Alambo told IRIN AP mines are worrisome at many levels. “We have learned the army has been buying AP mines, intending to plant them, and then blaming explosions on the rebels. This will be awful for us. Yes, this is a combat zone now, but we are fighting where we live. This is the land that will have to nurture us when the conflict is over. This is the land we hope tourists will revisit, where our animals can graze again.”
Government de-mining commission president Kassouma denied the army is acquiring AP mines for combat, and said he has begun approaching international authorities to deal with the seized AP mines.
The mines are currently being stored in a military barracks in the eastern Niger town of Diffa.