WASHINGTON - Landmines sown during past conflicts could be cleared in a matter of years--not decades--the United Nations said Tuesday, offering hope that hundreds of thousands of people will be spared death or dismemberment.
''The goal of a world without landmines and explosive remnants of war appears achievable in years--not decades as we used to think,'' UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a statement marking Tuesday's observance of the first International Day for Mine Awareness and Assistance in Mine Action.
Annan's upbeat assessment contrasted with one issued last month by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL).
''It appears that many of the  Mine Ban Treaty States Parties with the earliest mine clearance deadlines, in 2009 and 2010, are not on track to meet those deadlines,'' ICBL said in a March 1 statement marking the seventh anniversary of the treaty's 1999 entry into force.
''Both the mine-affected countries and donor states need to ratchet up their efforts now,'' added the organization, widely recognized as among the most authoritative landmine monitors.
Annan echoed ICBL Tuesday, urging ramped up support for mine clearance from international donors, the general public, and governments in the countries most affected.
The explosive devices kill or maim up to 20,000 per year worldwide, the UN said.
''Landmines are cruel instruments of war,'' Annan said. ''Through them, 20th century battles claim 21st century victims, with new casualties added every hour.''
In addition to reaping death and disability, landmine makers and planters harvest fear throughout entire communities, prevent farmers from growing crops and refugees from returning home, and block humanitarian relief and peacekeeping troops.
''In post-conflict societies, landmines remain one of the greatest impediments to rebuilding and renewal,'' Annan said.
The swift entry into force of the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty has fuelled a decline in mine manufacturing, trading, and use, UN and other analysts said. It also has boosted efforts to clear minefields and educate people about the risks posed by landmines and how to deal with them.
Despite progress, the task ahead remains daunting.
Some 70 million landmines and other types of unexploded ordnance remain to be cleared in 80-plus countries, said Alison Bock, president of U.S.-based advocacy group Landmines Blow!
The dangers of landmines should be well known, especially given their indiscriminate nature, Bock told OneWorld.
Yet, she added, ''landmines are a hard sell in the United States because people don't have to worry about stepping on them. Imagine if you had to worry about your loved ones getting blown away while walking to school or fetching a pail of water.''
That is what happens in Cambodia, where civilians accounted for 97 percent of all landmine casualties in 2003.
Bock's organization uses Cambodia as a case study, saying explosive devices are to be found in half of the Southeast Asian country's villages and have killed or injured more than 60,000 Cambodians over the past 35 years.
One in three victims has been a child, according to the Landmines Blow! Web site.
The organization seeks to educate the public about landmines and to raise funds for projects ranging from mine clearance and survivor support to the sinking of wells in villages so residents do not have to venture into mine-strewn territory in search of safe drinking water.
The United Nations rated Cambodia among the countries with the highest number of reported landmine victims in 2004. Others on the list included Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia, Colombia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Sudan.
Mines threaten one in four Afghans and kill or maim 70-100 people in the war-wrecked country every month, said British de-mining agency the Halo Trust.
That is a terrible figure but it represents a significant reduction from a monthly toll of 150-300 in 2002, Halo Trust said. More than 320,000 antipersonnel mines, 20,000 anti-tank mines, and more than 78,000 stockpiled mines have been destroyed since Afghanistan's de-mining efforts began in 1990, it added.
New minefields are seeded even as old ones are uprooted.
On Monday, ICBL condemned what it termed ''ongoing use of antipersonnel landmines in Guinea-Bissau by a faction of the Senegal-based Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC).''
The MFDC has fought for the southern Casamance region's independence from Senegal since 1982. The rebel movement appeared to stop using landmines in 2001, after signing an agreement not to use them two years earlier, ICBL said. It accused the movement's so-called Salif Sadio faction of reverting to landmine use earlier this year.
The splinter group's actions notwithstanding, ICBL said, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau have signed the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which took effect in 1999 and bans the use, production, trade, and stockpiling of antipersonnel mines. Guinea-Bissau completed destruction of its stockpile last October, the organization added.
''A significant number of rebel groups have also pledged to stop using antipersonnel mines, in keeping with the emerging international norm against the weapon,'' it said in a statement.
The governments of three countries--Myanmar (formerly Burma), Nepal, and Russia--used antipersonnel mines last year while ''non-state armed groups'' used them in 13 countries, according to ICBL's Landmine Monitor Report.
The United States might resume production of the devices for the first time in eight years, the organization added, referring to a pending government decision on whether produce a new mine system, called Spider, that would be prohibited by the 1997 treaty.
ICBL urged 45 countries that have not yet joined the Mine Ban Treaty to do so. These included the three recent landmine users, the United States, and nine other landmine producers: China, Cuba, India, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, and Vietnam.
Also among the 45 are five countries whose governments have signed the treaty but whose legislatures have failed to ratify the pact: Brunei, the Cook Islands, Indonesia, the Marshall Islands, and Poland.
© 2006 One World News