WASHINGTON -- Diplomats from 50 countries, including the United States, launched an international effort yesterday to defuse the danger of land mines, indiscriminate battlefield killers and a lethal legacy of war.
In the former Yugoslavia alone, as many as 6 million anti-personnel mines are estimated to have been sown by Serbs, Muslims and Croats. Even if peace comes to the region, these mines will pose a danger for years, not only to civilians but to international peacekeepers who may be deployed there, including as many as 25,000 U.S. troops.
A new report estimates that 100 million mines have been laid in 64 countries, waiting for vehicles, people or animals to trigger them. Most are scattered in Third World areas of conflict, mainly in Asia and Africa, and their victims are frequently children or farmers.
According to the report -- "After the Guns Fall Silent: The Enduring Legacy of Land Mines," issued by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation -- land mines claim 500 victims weekly.
"Put simply, anything that land mines can do to an enemy's army, they can also do to a civilian population. What they cannot do is discriminate between the soldier and the civilian," write the report's co-authors, Shawn Roberts and Jody Williams.
The danger has spurred political efforts in Washington and overseas to limit the distribution of land mines. There is scant prospect of an outright ban on the production, sale or use of the weapons, partly because the Clinton administration and the Pentagon oppose such a ban.
In Vienna, a United Nations-sponsored conference opened yesterday to try to strengthen a 1980 agreement restricting the use of land mines.
In Washington, a congressional conference committee is trying to decide whether to adopt Senate legislation that would impose a one-year moratorium on the U.S. military's use of anti-personnel mines, except in monitored minefields along international borders or in demilitarized zones.
The Army opposes the ban, saying it would diminish its ability to protect its troops, who have been defending themselves with land mines since the Civil War.
An Army briefing paper notes that during the 1991 Persian Gulf war against Iraq, the armored forces of the U.S. VII Corps were protected by mines scattered from Air Force planes. The barrier of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines prevented two Iraqi divisions from attacking the advancing column.
In a telephone interview from the Vienna conference, Jody Williams, co-author of the land mine report, said: "If I were a soldier in a rice paddy, I would want lots of mines around me, too. The problem is land mines can kill you for 70 years, and battles generally don't go on that long."
Noting that the United Nations spent $70 million clearing up to 100,000 mines in 1993, while an estimated 2 million more mines were being deployed, she said: "Clearly, unless the problem is stopped at source, which is production . . we are going to continue to see the proliferation we have seen in the last 15 years. At this point there is no end in sight."
As an alternative to a global ban, the Clinton administration is proposing to replace older-type mines that can remain armed and concealed for years with new smart weapons that self-destruct or disarm themselves 14 days after being placed.
According to administration officials, this would allow military forces to exploit mine technology to their own defensive advantage while reducing the post-battle danger to civilians.
Since 1974, the United States has bought only self-destroying mines, and is phasing out the long-lasting mines. The Army is spending $62.5 million to buy mines this year.
"They seem to want to pursue a technological fix, which we think just can't happen," said Stephen Goose, program director for the Arms Project of the Washington-based activist group, Human Rights Watch.
Mr. Goose, in Vienna, Austria, for the weapons conference, said in a telephone interview yesterday: "Other governments are not going to accept the U.S. argument that 'The mines I make are good, and the mines you make are bad.' "
The Swedish government is proposing a total ban on the production, export or use of land mines at the Vienna conference, but this is expected to win support from only about a dozen of the 49 states participating.
More likely to come out of the meeting is an extension of the 1980 agreement to include civil as well as cross-border wars in the mapping and reporting of all mine fields to the United Nations. Agreement is also expected on a requirement that all mines should contain enough metal to make them easily detectable. Many mines are made of plastic, which does not register on metal detectors currently in use.
China is the world's main suppliers of mines. Congress imposed a moratorium on U.S. mine exports in 1992. The ban is due to expire in 1997.