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Civilians near Kharkiv discover ticking landmines

BEZRUKY, Ukraine – When Sergiy, a 47-year-old construction worker, woke up Sunday morning in this small town in northeastern Ukraine, he discovered a frightening new danger in a war filled with them: he woke up in a minefield.

He had heard a rocket land near his house around 1am but paid little attention to it. There had been a lot of rocket fire since Russian forces invaded in late February. The thuds, crumbs and explosions had become a cruel but familiar soundtrack to those who remained, along with the sour smell that weapons left in the air.

But what landed in his yard was a new weapon the townspeople could add to their growing lexicon of destruction: they knew the Smerch, the Grad, the Hurricane – and now they’ve been introduced to the PTM landmine. -1S, a type of scatterable ammunition.

“Nobody understood what it was,” said Sergiy, declining to give his last name for fear of reprisals. The weapons roar like any rocket, but instead of exploding instantly, they eject up to two dozen mines that explode at intervals, slicing death within hours.

From the start of the invasion, Russia made it clear that it was prepared to inflict violence and destruction to achieve its goals, often indiscriminately. It launched cruise missiles, dispatched tanks and fired mortars, artillery and rockets. Now he’s also turned to something less seemingly ominous, but just as brutal.

These scatterable mines, banned under some interpretations of international law and never officially registered during this war, appeared only sparingly in Bezruky and elsewhere on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The weapons add yet another element of peril for civilians trying to navigate parts of the ruined landscape.

Mines are green tubes the size of a liter of soda, filled with three pounds of explosives. They are often used to disable tanks but had, in Sergiy’s case, landed where his eight-year-old daughter likes to play when the weather is nice.

“These weapons combine the worst possible attributes of cluster munitions and landmines,” said Brian Castner, Senior Weapons Researcher at Amnesty International. “Each of these indiscriminate attacks is illegal and they overlap.”

Scatterable landmines can include those intended to kill people and those designed to destroy tanks. The United States last used them during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and they have since been largely banned by a 1997 international treaty signed by 164 countries, including Ukraine, which targeted landmines.

Some anti-vehicle mines – like the PTM-1S that landed in Sergiy’s yard – have sensitive fuses that can detonate them when people pick them up and can be considered anti-personnel mines. They are therefore prohibited by international law, although neither Russia nor the United States has acceded to the relevant treaty.

The morning of April 3 started like any other in Bezruky since the beginning of the Russian invasion: another day without electricity for the few thousand inhabitants, and the sporadic bombardments between Ukrainian and Russian forces become commonplace.

It was pretty quiet, but around 10 a.m. Sergiy’s cabin exploded. There was no sound of incoming shells or rockets, just the explosion.

Sergiy, who had lived in Bezruky for much of his life, came out to inspect the damage. Debris was strewn all over his workbench, the side of the shed was damaged, and a rectangular crater several inches deep appeared.

He went out to close the windows of his house, fearing there was another explosion, when he spotted a green tube, another PTM-1S mine, next to the fence in his neighbour’s garden . He quickly took a picture and went back inside.

It exploded 20 minutes later, he said.

“The gusts continued throughout the day with intervals of around 50 minutes, and the last one was around 3 a.m. the following night after it first landed,” Sergiy said. There is no Ukrainian military equipment in Bezruky. The Russian front lines are about seven miles to the north, and to the south are Ukrainian artillery positions.

The mines have been set to self-destruct at specific times, a feature built into each mine, which can be set at intervals of two hours up to 24 hours. No one was killed or injured in the series of explosions that rocked his neighborhood.

“It was lucky the kids didn’t play there that day,” Sergiy said. “Normally they would play in the backyard as the first coins exploded, but it was raining that day.”

Kharkiv deminers, who respond to calls for unexploded ordnance throughout the city and its outskirts, said it was the first recorded sighting of the PTM-1S since the start of the war.

As Russia concentrates on the east of the country after its bitter defeats around the country’s capital, Russian forces have stepped up their bombardment around Kharkiv and elsewhere in the region, often resorting to indiscriminate attacks to tie up resources.

Intentionally targeting civilians with weapons of any kind is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, and Russia’s use of these scatterable mines would likely constitute an indiscriminate attack, given that artillery rockets carrying these mines, which can travel up to 20 miles, were fired at a civilian area devoid of military targets.

“Last week this weapon appeared,” said the team leader of an explosives disposal unit working in Kharkiv and nearby towns. He only provided his first name, Maksym, for security reasons. There are at least six other teams like his deployed throughout the region.

Randomly exploding mines are just a new feature of Maksym’s grueling work. His team of half a dozen men has been working non-stop in the Kharkiv region since the Russian invasion. It will likely take years, if not decades, to clear all munitions thrown into Ukraine during the war.

The 26-year-old team leader records five to 30 incidents a day, reports rockets landing in homes on his phone and is often invited by passers-by to look at explosive debris.

Maksym’s rounds on Tuesday included extracting a 122-millimeter rocket casing outside a supermarket and clearing debris from an apartment building and an amusement park.

Towards the end of the day, while working in a farmer’s field extracting the remains of a Smerch rocket, a man on a bicycle got on and waved him off.

“Can you pick up the same from my place?” shouted the man.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Bezruky, and Jean Ismay from Washington. Natalia Yermak contributed to Bezruky’s reporting.


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