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The News International, June 28, 2001
Indian army using civilians as shield against landmines

POONCH: Indian army patrols looking for mines and booby traps in troubled Kashmir have found the safest and most effective way to conduct their dangerous searches -- get a civilian to do it.

Abdul Hamid, 16, steps gingerly into a large hole along an isolated stretch of the Rajouri-Poonch highway, around 200-km northwest of the Kashmiri winter capital Jammu. Clad only in a pair cotton trousers and a T-shirt and carrying a wooden stick, Hamid's figure cuts a striking contrast with the small army sapper patrol watching him. The soldiers are dressed in full army fatigues and flak jackets, and carry sensitive metal detectors and semi-automatic weapons. As Hamid hesitates, a member of the patrol points towards the hole with a stick, edging him on. Such scenes are common in Kashmir.

Hamid and his friend, Rashid, 20, remained with the patrol the entire morning, poking into bushes and under boulders along the sides of the highway. The patrols can be seen all over Kashmir, performing their daily check for landmines and other explosives.

Villagers in Poonch and Rajouri say most patrols will force two civilians to accompany them on the routine searches. "Two civilians, usually young men, accompany every 20 odd soldiers every morning to look for landmines or explosives planted by mujahideen," said Muhammad Hussain of Sarankote village. "They have to search along the roadsides, under the bridges and culverts, and behind the heavy rocks," Hussain said, adding that they were rarely given anything more than a wooden axe handle in terms of equipment.

An army officer leading the patrol containing Hamid and Rashid, denied any coercion was used when drafting in villagers for help. "It is with their agreement that we ask locals to accompany us who know the topography of the area very well," the officer said.


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