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Critics fault US plan to allow 'smart' mines

WASHINGTON -- The decision by the United States to abandon a sweeping land mine prohibition envisioned by the Clinton administration has angered humanitarian groups.

The new policy, announced Friday, allows the use of sophisticated or "smart" land mines that can be automatically defused within days, marking a retreat from the pledge to ban all land mines by 2006 if the Pentagon was able to develop alternatives.

It would ban after 2010 "dumb" mines that cannot self-destruct and pose a risk long after battlefields return to peaceful use.

The United States, which has refused to sign on to a global land mine treaty, has long been criticized for its mine policies, and Friday's announcement brought a sharp response.

"This new land mine policy is not just a gigantic step backward for the United States, it is a complete about-face," said Stephen Goose, executive director of the arms division of Human Rights Watch.

The charity Landmine Action added: "While 141 countries around the world -- including all other NATO countries -- have now banned land mines, the US is choosing to continue to use this outmoded and indiscriminate weapon that kills and injures thousands of people every year."

President Bush's special representative for mine action, Lincoln Bloomfield, announcing the decision at the State Department, said it aimed to strike a balance between the need to retain effective weapons and humanitarian concerns.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, called the new policy a "deeply disappointing rollback" and said it would serve to encourage other militaries to continue using mines.

"The world looks to us for leadership on this issue," Leahy said. "When we back away from the progress we have pledged to rid the world of these indiscriminate weapons, others will ask why they, with their much weaker armies, should stop using them."

The Bush plan also proposes a 50 percent increase, up to $70 million, for a State Department program that provides land mine removal assistance in more than 40 countries.

The British land mine charity Halo Trust, championed by the late Princess Diana, welcomed that move, saying the pledge of more money to dig up mines was the best way to save lives.

The UN says the 1997 international treaty banning land mines has steadily reduced their use and the number of people they kill or maim each year. A few dozen countries, including the United States, China, and Russia, remain outsiders to the treaty.

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