Landmines in Western Desert still a threat

The landmines that were laid during World War II within and on the fringes of Egypt’s Western Desert continue to be a threat.  In the areas around the Gilf Kebir and Uweinat some of these mine fields are marked on the 1940s maps.  Tour guides are familiar with the areas that must be avoided;  smugglers use the mine fields as routes through the desert where they know they will not be disturbed.

But in an article on the BBN News website Christian Fraser says that the problem is far more serious in the north of the desert where Axis and Allied forces fought for control of Egypt.  The desert at Alamein, one of the major battle sites of the fight for territory, is still littered with unexploded landmines, bombs, mortars and other munitions which are still causing serious and sometimes dreadful  injuries to the bedouin groups who still use this land for their herds and for planting olive groves.

The mine fields and other areas of danger have never been mapped due to the movement of sand masses, which change the landscape from week to week.

No country has taken responsibility, but a group has been formed to represent the 660 individuals recorded with injuries caused by abandoned munitions and they are approaching the countries involved in an attempt to gain financial compensation.  The report says that as  Egypt has not signed the Ottowa Convention they do not receive assistance from the UK.  The efforts of the UK, one of the countries that has been approached for compensation, are directed towards those countries that have signed the Convention.

The matter was raised in an article on The Telegraph in 2002 by Neil Tweedie.  The area concerned is estimated to cover some 2,900 square kilometres.  The article says that according to the Egyptian authorities, “there are some 20 million pieces of unexploded ordnance in a 40-mile belt of land south of El Alamein, of which five million are landmines”.   Reports on the numbers injured and killed by this ordnance are confused but reach into the  several thousands.  The Egyptian armed forces have been tasked with the job of clearing unexplained ordnance and other remains from the war.  The United Nations Mines Action Service visited in 2000 and praised the work already completed but pointed out the inevitability of further injuries.  The Telegraph article says that although Britain gave 600,000 UKP towards the problem of clearing the Alamein area in 1996, it prefers to manage all its contributions through the nations Mines Action service.

In an article for The Scotsman in December 2009 Rob Crilly reported that Egypt is investing 150 million UKP in a clean up programme along the coastline. The main motivation, according to the article, is the value of the land in which the battle took place – real estate which could be used for the development of tourism, and there is the potential for exploiting natural resources under the land.

Either way the bedouin will probably lose out – either becaue of unexploded ordnance or because the land is claimed for profitable development projects.

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