Colombia has launched what it says is the world’s biggest operation for clearing unexploded mines as it closes in on an end to its half-century civil conflict.
“It will be the biggest demining brigade on the planet,” said President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday, announcing the project at a military commemoration ceremony.
The brigade of military engineers will be dedicated to clearing mines from some 400 areas. It will have 5,000 personnel by the end of this year and that number will double next year.
“It is an expensive, dangerous but absolutely necessary job,” Santos said. He has promised to clear the country of antipersonnel mines entirely by 2021.
The international NGO Halo Trust estimates that mines have killed or injured more than 10,000 people in Colombia since 1990.
The Colombian government in June signed a landmark disarmament deal with the country’s biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The sides hope June’s ceasefire and disarmament deal will soon be followed by a full peace accord.
It hopes also to strike an accord with the second-biggest armed group, the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN).
That process has been disrupted as the government has accused the ELN of continuing to carry out kidnappings.
Two suspected ELN members were killed in a clash across the border with the Venezuelan army, Colombia’s Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas said Saturday. He said Venezuelan authorities believed the ELN fighters were involved in smuggling fuel.
Around 260,000 people have been killed in the territorial conflict in Colombia that started in 1964.