Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ottawa to help Laos cope with cluster-bomb scourge

UN agency set to co-ordinate $1-million offer

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OTTAWA -- Canada is planning to answer a plea by the tiny South Asian country of Laos and restart funding to help it cope with its infestation of deadly cluster bombs, The Canadian Press has learned.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is to announce a $1-million contribution, to be managed through a United Nations agency, during a trip to Laos today.

Canada cut its funding to the international effort to help clear cluster munitions from Laos in 2012, after contributing more than $2 million between 1996 and 2011.

The announcement comes after The Canadian Press travelled to Laos this past spring to document the country's chronic cluster-bomb problem, a modern-day legacy of the Vietnam War.

In a series of interviews in the normally closed communist country, senior Laotian government officials urged Canada to return with whatever financial support it could offer to help with its annual $30-million international effort to clear the unexploded ordnance, known as UXO.

Laos is the most cluster-bomb-contaminated country in the world on a per capita basis.

American B-52 bombers dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos during nine years, including 270 million fist-sized bomblets, 80 million of which failed to explode.

The small, brightly coloured submunitions, known as bombies or bomblets, continue to litter the country, injuring and maiming innocent civilians, often children.

There are an estimated 12,000 cluster-bomb victims and their families living in Laos, Vietnam's tiny landlocked neighbour of six million people.

Baird is to announce the renewed Canadian funding in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, at a government-run health and rehab facility called the Cope Centre that also contains a small but powerful museum that describes the cluster-bomb problem.

Sources familiar with the details surrounding the announcement say Baird will announce $500,000 each for two UXO clearance operators based in Laos. They are the British-based Mines Advisory Group, and the country's own homegrown clearance operator, UXO Lao.

The $1 million will be administered through a United Nations Development Program trust fund.

The deputy director of UXO Lao had effusive praise for Canada's past funding of the sector during an interview earlier this year, but was one of several officials urging Canada to restart funding.

"Maybe there's some other internal issue the Canadian people consider more important to resolve," said Wanthong Khamdala. "But I'd like to request to the Canadian government to consider again to support."

Baird's announcement will take place in the Cope Centre, which former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited in July 2012 on her historic visit to Laos.

Clinton met Phongsavath Manithong, who lost both his hands and was blinded by a cluster bomb on his 16th birthday in February 2008.

 

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 15, 2013 A2

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