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Undetonated bombs lie in wait for innocent Laotians


September 6, 1996
Web posted at: 1:15 a.m. EDT (0515 GMT)

From Correspondent Tom Minitier

SAVANNAKHET PROVINCE, Laos (CNN) -- Lethal leftovers of the Vietnam War still litter the landscape of eastern Laos, ready to be set off by a child's footstep or the tap of a farmer's hoe.

More than two decades after the last shots were fired along the Laotian border with Vietnam, site of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, rusted and aging anti-personnel cluster bombs remain active and waiting. They strike with blind efficiency, maiming and killing.

During the war years, the trail was the superhighway for North Vietnamese troops and equipment headed to battles in the South of Vietnam.

The bombs come in all shapes and colors. Some, painted yellow, look like a piece of fruit.

It is a problem for the Laotian people, many of who are poor and have few opportunities. They live off the land -- but the land is dangerous.


For nine years, during U.S. fighting in Vietnam, the ground rumbled in Savannakhet Province every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day. Americans attempting to cut the supply lines on the Laotian side of the border dropped 2 million tons of bombs on remote areas of Laos.

Millions of small cluster bombs rained down on the region. Each canister contained more than 600 individual bombs, 30 percent of which failed to go off.

They still sit on the jungle floor waiting for a victim.

In the Savannakhet Province of Laos, a crater harbors a "bombie," a small metal ball about the size of a baseball, filled with explosives.

"This device right here is embedded with fragmentation balls and it has a 15-meter kill radius and about a 30-meter casualty radius," explained Soubanh Srithirath of the Department of Foreign Ministry.

Disarming the enemy

In a massive effort to make the Laos countryside safe again, the Laotian government, aided by the United Nations, has embarked on a program to teach people about the unseen dangers and how to clean up the debris of war.

Sgt. Jeff Kapp and Chief Warrant Officer Marc Tarter are U.S. Marine explosives experts assigned to Laos to teach students how to safely dispose of the dormant killers known in their business as u-x-o -- unexploded ordnance. The United States is contributing $2 million this year to help clear fields of the bombs.

Thit Mok, a farmer who has found more than 100 bombs in a small field where his cattle grazes, called Kapp and Tarter's attention to the field. By clearing the field, the farm he's worked for 12 years will be safe.


"I don't know who dropped the bombs. It came from airplanes," Mok said. "They say it's American, but I don't know who America is. It was during the war."

The farmer has a 750-pound bomb as a neighbor. He built his home next to it, never realizing what it was. The bomb could explode at any moment.

"There's plenty of responsibility to go around for the ordinance that is in the field," said Victor Tomseth, U.S. ambassador to Laos. "The issue these days, 20 years after the end of the war, is what do you do about it, not who put it there."


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