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Administration reverses course on land mines ban

August 18, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In a reversal, President Clinton is sending a team of senior officials to Geneva this week to confer with 17 countries on banning land mines, except those in Korea.

The aim is a treaty by the end of the year, backed strongly by Canada and Belgium, to ban the production, use and sale of land mines. Worldwide, land mines kill or injure 26,000 a year, by State Department estimate. Alone in Angola, site of a 20-year civil war, there are up to an estimated 9 million land mines.

An estimated 110 million unexploded land mines remain buried in 68 countries. Planted in wartime, the weapons continue to kill and maim long after conflicts end.

``The president made the right decision,″ Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chief Senate proponent of a quick ban, said in a statement. ``I urge the administration now to apply all of its good faith and diligence to the task of helping to forge the strongest possible treaty.″

Slow progress at the 61-nation U.N. disarmament conference in Geneva prompted Clinton to explore the treaty proposed initially by Canada. Negotiations are due to open in Oslo, Norway, on Sept. 1.

In the meantime, the U.S. delegation headed by Robert Bell of the National Security Council will confer in Geneva with representatives of the 17 nations pushing for an alternative treaty. These include Norway, South Africa, Germany, France and Britain.

More than 100 countries have shown interest in the ban.

There is one major American condition, however. The United States is insisting that land mines remain on the Korean peninsula, and it hopes to convince other nations to go along.

``You have to be logical and thoughtful,″ James P. Rubin, the State Department spokesman, said. He described Korea as a unique situation with unique dangers.

North Korean forces are on a high state of alert and there always is a risk of attack, he said.

``Our planners, our defense officials, believe that anti-personnel land mines are required in order for us to fulfill this United Nations responsibility to protect this Korean peninsula,″ Rubin said.

This view was challenged by Council for a Livable World Education Fund, a group seeking a land-mine ban.

``To join the Oslo land mine talks with the intention of changing the goals of those discussions is not good-faith bargaining,″ Tom Cardamone of the group said in a statement. ``With the superiority of U.S. military technology it is unlikely that mines would have a significant effect on a battle in Korea,″ he said, while praising the U.S. decision to join the talks.

Contrary to some reports, Rubin said Clinton would not insist that the treaty permit continued deployment so-called ``smart″ mines, most of which destruct within 48 hours.

The White House said in an announcement it was not giving up on the 61-nation U.N. conference. However, it said the United States ``is committed to pursuing the most promising opportunities for ending the use of anti-personnel land mines which every year cause enormous suffering around the world.″

In June, a majority of the Senate urged approval of legislation to outlaw U.S. deployment of land mines by 2000. It currently has 60 cosponors. More than one-third of the House wrote Clinton, asking him to join the Canadian effort for a legally binding, comprehensive international treaty.

Leahy said Monday he would hold back from Senate action ``so long as the United States is actively and constructively engaged in the Ottawa process.″

In January, Clinton announced a ban on U.S. land mine sales. He said a treaty negotiated the U.N. disarmament conference was more likely to entice nations such as China and Russia to join in despite their distaste for signing a prohibition treaty.

However, the conference’s step-by-step approach could take years.

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