Unmoved by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to a campaign to ban land mines, the Clinton administration said Friday that its mines--unlike those planted by most other countries--protect the lives of American troops and, if used under the Pentagon's careful rules, do not endanger civilians.
"It's not American land mines that are blowing up little children," State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said after the announcement that the Nobel Prize had been awarded to American activist Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines that she directs.
The Defense Department draws a sharp distinction between U.S. mine warfare doctrine and the indiscriminate use of the weapon by guerrilla groups and other forces. Land mines kill or injure an estimated 26,000 people, most of them civilians, every year.
Defense Department officials said that the United States uses land mines most extensively along the fortified border between North and South Korea. The weapon is intended to blunt a massive overland invasion of soldiers and arms by North Korea and buy time for U.S. and South Korean defenders.
According to Pentagon officials, most of the mines that would be used in a North Korean invasion are stored in warehouses near the border, meaning that civilians have minimal chance of coming into contact with them.
Elsewhere in the world, the U.S. military uses only "smart" mines, which either turn themselves off or self-destruct after a fixed period, usually no more than 48 hours. Because of their short life-span, these mines rarely inflict civilian casualties. They allow a commander to blunt an enemy attack, then counterattack across the minefield after it is deactivated.
By contrast, most of the estimated 100 million mines buried in the ground in such places as Afghanistan, Angola and Cambodia remain deadly for years. Frequently they cause casualties long after a conflict has ended.
Last month, President Clinton said that the United States would not approve a treaty, scheduled to be signed in Ottawa in December, outlawing the manufacture, sale and use of antipersonnel land mines. The United States sought unsuccessfully to amend the treaty to permit continued use of mines in Korea and to delay the effective date for nine years to give the Pentagon time to come up with an alternative.
Although as many as 100 nations are expected to approve the pact, most of the major manufacturers and users of land mines--including the United States, China, India and Pakistan--are not on the list.