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U.S. Soldiers On Their Way to Bosnia Undergo Mine Training

By Rick Atkinson
The Washington Post
SCHWETZINGEN, Germany

Mines that maim and mines that kill. Mines that can blow off toes and mines that can rip open a 70-ton tank. Mines detonated by the magnetic force field of a passing vehicle and "bouncing" mines that leap chest-high before spewing hundreds of metal splinters.

For the U.S. combat soldiers who will begin deploying in large numbers to Bosnia within a week, land mines have become an obsession.

Mines are the subject of training exercises, barracks bull sessions and more than a few nightmares.

U.S. intelligence estimates that 3 million mines have been strewn across Bosnia in four years of fighting, Lt. Gen. Howell Estes, operations director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last week. "Could it be double that? Yes, sir," he added. "I don't think anybody really knows how many mines are there."

Between April 1992 and April 1995, 19 U.N. peacekeepers were killed by mines in former Yugoslavia and 190 wounded. Last month, Defense Secretary William J. Perry told soldiers training for Bosnia duty that mines pose the greatest threat to U.S. forces - more than hostile Serbs or Muslims, or icy roads.

A report last week by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation estimated that Bosnia and Croatia combined have 4.5 to 6 million mines, including some that are among the world's most difficult to detect. The sector of Bosnia where the Army's 1st Armored Division will operate has at least three major minefields - including an infested area around Tuzla airfield - but is less saturated than some other parts of Bosnia, Estes said.

The Army is working feverishly to minimize risks. Armor units have been outfitted with heavy metal plows and rollers, as they were in the Persian Gulf War. Mounted on the front of an Abrams tank, the plows cut furrows beneath buried mines and flip them to the side of the road; rollers detonate the mines in place, although after a few explosions the devices are reduced to scrap and must be replaced.

The Dayton peace accord calls for the warring parties in Bosnia to provide NATO commanders with maps and information about minefields, to mark the fields and to render them "inert." But few soldiers have high expectations of compliance, given the haphazard way in which mines have been strewn.

"The law of averages says that there are mines out there waiting for a convoy," Bradley said.