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New Russian landmine poses particular risk in Ukraine


WASHINGTON — Russian forces in Ukraine appear to be using a new type of weapon as they step up their attacks on civilian targets: an advanced landmine equipped with sensors that can detect when people are walking near it.

Ukrainian bomb technicians discovered the device, called POM-3, last week near the eastern city of Kharkiv, according to Human Rights Watch, a leading human rights group, which reviewed photos supplied by the Ukrainian army.

Older types of landmines usually explode when victims accidentally step on them or disturb attached tripwires. But the POM-3’s seismic sensor picks up approaching footsteps and can effectively distinguish between humans and animals.

Humanitarian deminers and groups campaigning against the use of landmines said the POM-3 would make future efforts to locate and destroy unexploded ordnance in Ukraine much more complicated and deadlier.

“These create a threat that we don’t have an answer for,” said James Cowan, who heads the HALO Trust, a British-American charity that clears landmines and other explosive remnants of war to help countries to recover from conflict. The group began removing unexploded ordnance from the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine in 2016 after Russian-backed separatists began fighting the Ukrainian government.

“We will need to find donors to provide us with the robotics that will allow us to deal with these threats from afar,” Cowan added.

The POM-3 is typically launched by rocket and parachuted back to earth before sinking into the ground — where it awaits, according to CAT-UXO, an online resource for military and civilian bomb technicians. When the mine detects a person, it launches a small explosive warhead which explodes in the air, producing deadly fragments up to approximately 50 feet away.

Mr Cowan, a retired British army major general, said his team of 430 Ukrainians tasked with clearing unexploded ordnance in the Donbass had been unable to continue working since Russia launched a full invasion of the country in late February, with many personnel temporarily transferred to Ukraine. He predicts that in the future, HALO operations across the country will require around 2,500 workers, given that many areas outside the Donbass are now also contaminated with unexploded ordnance.

US government officials have said Russia appears to be moving troops to consolidate its hold on Donetsk and Luhansk, which could mean even more weapons like the POM-3 will be used in the war.

“War is entering a static phase – trenches are being dug,” Mr Cowan said. “This is when I would expect the Russians to start using landmines extensively.”

HALO, which stands for Hazardous Area Life-Support Organization, has about 10,000 employees worldwide and is one of the few international non-profit organizations that have remained in Afghanistan since the Taliban took control of the capital Kabul in August. Mr Cowan said the future cleanup in Ukraine would require roughly the same number of workers as the current HALO operation in Afghanistan, which is recovering from decades of armed conflict.

The POM-3 is just one of many new dangers his organization expects to encounter, in addition to countless rockets, bombs and artillery shells that have not exploded on impact. Russia has also attacked Ukrainian arms depots, causing fires and explosions that typically hurl hundreds or even thousands of damaged munitions into surrounding areas.

Once widely used around the world, anti-personnel landmines often kill and maim civilians long after hostilities have ended. Ukraine is one of 164 countries that signed a 1997 treaty banning the use of antipersonnel landmines and pledged to purge their stockpiles. The United States and Russia refused to join.

The treaty does not prohibit the use of anti-tank landmines – which typically have a much larger explosive charge and are designed to detonate only when a vehicle passes over or near them – nor does it address explosive devices improvised ones built to destroy vehicles. Videos posted on social media claim to show both anti-tank mines and improvised bomb attacks on Russian vehicles in Ukraine.

Russia’s use of landmines was among the discussions at a Tuesday event on Capitol Hill for the United Nations’ International Mine Awareness Day, which brought together groups that focus on the issue and lawmakers from the Caucus unexploded ordnance/mine clearance of Congress.

“Wars end, they stay,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, of landmines and unexploded ordnance. “The targets are invariably civilians, and they’re in places where you have limited ability to provide life-saving medical care.”

“Look at what’s happening in Ukraine – Russia is placing landmines in people’s homes, as well as on children’s playgrounds and places where people go,” Leahy said. “It’s using it as a weapon of terror.”

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