Ziguinchor — Over half of the mined land in Senegal's southern Casamance region has been cleared, according to the government's anti-mines action centre, CNAMS, which says it is on track to reach the 1 March 2016 deadline of the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty to eliminate such weapons.
According to CNAMS head Sény Diop, 630, 204 square metres have been demined, and the residents of more than 61 communities have been able to return home or access their agricultural land.
Some 322 mines have been removed since demining began in 2008.
Diop said the Kassa region near the Guinea-Bissau border, an area east of the Casamance capital Ziguinchor, and north Sindian near the Gambian border are yet to be demined. These areas account for about half of the zones that were mined.
"We are very pleased with the progress of the operations," said Diop. "In many areas socioeconomic activities have restarted."
The pace of demining increased under Handicap International, which was responsible for demining from 2008-2012, as the organization completed assessments of at-risk zones and identified the right kind of equipment to detect all mines used.
In 2012, South African firm MECHEM took over and, according to Diop, the amount of land demined has doubled over the past year. MECHEM logistics coordinator Jean Michel Thiam said the accelerated pace was due to the experience CNAMS has gained over the years, MECHEM's own experience, and the fact that unlike Handicap International it is a private firm with commercial interests that rely on productivity.
However, not all are as sanguine as Diop, given active fighting in Casamance between the Movement of the Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC) and the Senegalese army, particularly in areas near the Gambian and Guinea-Bissau borders.
Thiam said it was impossible to determine whether demining will meet the Ottawa treaty goal as no surveys had been done in certain areas under rebel control.
"It's not possible to determine the extent of work needed in these areas because we don't have any information regarding the size or type of terrain that has been mined or littered with explosive remnants of war," Thiam told IRIN.
MECHEM has extracted 146 mines and three items of unexploded ordnance in an area of 269, 251 square metres since it began demining, Thiam said.
In March, a 60-year-old man was hit by a mine in the village of Djirack, near the Guinea-Bissau border; while a woman and her son were killed in northern Sindian Province as they were travelling through the bush. CNAMS has not been able to work in either of these areas.
According to Handicap International in 2012, mines were still being planted in Sindian, 100km north of the capital, Ziguinchor.
MFDC fighters are often accused of laying mines, though they in turn accuse the Senegalese army. The rebels and the state of Senegal signed a peace accord in 2004 but sporadic violence has continued ever since.
Diop said it was impossible to tell if the recent mine deaths were due to pre-existing or newly-laid mines.
CNAMS and international NGOs have tried to find ways to work with MFDC to come to an agreement to stop laying mines and enable all affected areas of Casamance to be demined.
At the end of March 2013, CNAMS and the military wing of an MFDC faction under the control of César Atoute Badiaté, met in San Domingos, northern Guinea-Bissau, to discuss demining. International mediator NGO Geneva Call, working with local NGOs APRAN/SDP, facilitated the talks.
In a statement after the talks MFDC said it understood the need to continue humanitarian demining, but it also considered CNAMS had reached a red line beyond which the security of operators could not be guaranteed. MFDC believes demining is dependent on a wider peace process. Geneva Call encouraged both sides to continue the dialogue.
In 2008 Badiaté had agreed to humanitarian demining taking place in Casamance while reserving the right to use mines in the case of attacks.
Senegal was one of the founding signatories of the 1999 Mine Ban Treaty.
As well as demining, CNAMS, alongside partners, runs mine awareness and prevention programmes, and helps ensure mine victims receive free hospital treatment, prosthetic limbs and wheelchairs, as well as livelihood support.
Some 800-1,000 people have been killed or injured by mines in Casamance since the 1980s, according to CNAMS, peaking at 221 incidents in 1997. This came down to just one incident in 2008. "Mine awareness is really paying off," said Diop.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]