Floods in Bosnia wash away river banks containing land mines planted during the war

Published June 24, 2010

| Associated Press

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — Floods in Bosnia displaced thousands this week as they washed away homes, crops and bridges. The torrents may have also swept loose a perhaps even bigger concern: land mines planted during the Bosnian war.

Since the end of the war in 1995, authorities have done their best to clear away the estimated 1 million land mines planted by the conflicting sides — or at least to mark contaminated areas.

But what if the ground moves?

"Each time the water pulls back, the geography is changed a bit and if there were any mines there, they end up somewhere else," said Antun Sinkovic, a quality control officer of Bosnia's Mine Action Center on Thursday.

At the end of the 1992-95 war, the U.N. was forced to estimate the number of mines strewn throughout the country because the conflicting parties — Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims — rarely kept records.

Under an international treaty, Bosnia was supposed to be mine-free by March 2009. Instead, Europe's most mine-infested nation was given another decade to clear the estimated 220,000 remaining mines and other unexploded ordnance. Authorities in the Balkan country acknowledge that more than 1,550 square kilometers (963 square miles) of territory is still riddled with mines.

Since the war ended, mines have claimed 1,700 victims, including 497 fatalities — among them 9 killed and 19 injured in 2009, according to records of Bosnia's Mine Action Center.

By possibly strewing explosives over yet uncharted areas, the floods have only added to the demining headaches — and to risks not only for Bosnians but to people in neighboring Croatia and beyond.

"We were tasked once to clear a mine field near the Sava river in the north and when we got there, 6,000 square meters (1.5 acres) of the marked area was missing. An entire river bank was gone together with the mines," said Boro Kosarac, the head of one of Bosnia's biggest commercial de-mining companies.

"Only God knows where those mines went," he said. "Theoretically, they could be just a few miles down the river or all the way in the Danube."

The Sava is Bosnia's natural border to Croatia and anything that floats down that river turns into an international problem. About 100 kilometers (60 miles) away from Bosnia, the Sava meets the Danube in Serbia, which then flows through Bulgaria and Romania and into the Black Sea.

Hardest to find are the small-anti personnel mines. Even if they get stuck in the mud somewhere in Bosnia, they are a problem because they have a minimal amount of metal, meaning that if they end up deeper than 10 centimeters (4 inches) below the surface, the mine detector will miss them.

Dogs won't smell them either, since the odor of the explosive gets washed away by the water.

Heavy rainfall made rivers and creeks spill over on Monday, flooding entire towns and villages in the north and the west of the country. Authorities had to evacuate thousands of people.

On Thursday the water began to withdraw, allowing authorities to start estimating the damage — and Mine Action Center scouts to go and search for suspicious river banks that may have gone missing.

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Associated Press writers George Jahn in Vienna, and Irena Knezevic in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, contributed to this report.

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