With fighting easing, landmines still haunt east Ukraine

Shyrokyne (Ukraine) (AFP) - It has been 10 months since Igor last visited his home in the eastern no man's land of war-shattered Ukraine.

The seaside fishing town of Shyrokyne remains studded with landmines, a deadly legacy of the 19-month pro-Russian revolt in the EU's backyard.

Both Ukrainian forces and separatist rebels have refused to take on the task of fully clearing the war zone of one of the most unpredictable and devastating hazards to residents' lives.

"People want to return home to recover their belongings. My friend made it to his house but then hit a tripwire. His leg was blown off," said Igor, a 56-year-old blue collar worker.

"The Ukrainian forces refuse to let us back in. They say the town is all mined," he said, declining to give his last name because of security concerns.

The now-deserted town lies just 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of the flashpoint industrial port of Mariupol -- a government-held target of repeated insurgent attacks.

Ukraine's emergencies ministry said that by last month it had cleared the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk regions in the former Soviet republic's once-booming industrial heartland of more than 44,000 mines.

But the warring sides and foreign monitors are struggling to estimate how many unexploded devices remain.

- 'Five years' to clear -

The UN children's agency UNICEF said at least 42 children had been killed and 109 injured by landmines and similar devices between the start of the war in April 2014 and March 31 this year.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said most of the nine civilians who died and 34 who were wounded in September alone had been victims of the indiscriminate weapon.

"The main risk threatening the lives of civilians (has) shifted from direct violence to explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices," it said in a report.

Most of the several dozen Ukrainian troops killed since a new wave of rocket and mortar exchanges erupted at the start of November also died after running into well-disguised tripwires.

Ukraine's deputy emergencies minister Andriy Danyk said last month the landmines will only be cleared "if there is a complete ceasefire".

But President Petro Poroshenko's envoy to periodic peace talks said rebel plans to stage "fake" local elections and the increasingly remote chance of the conflict ending by an agreed end-of-year deadline were making matters worse.

The envoy, former president Leonid Kuchma, said "experts think the de-mining process will take five years because we do not even have the maps" showing the location of the devices.

- Unploughed fields -

Shyrokyne once had a population of 1,000 but was cleared of even its most stubborn and war-hardened residents by the start of the year.

Monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said in July that about 80 percent of its homes had been "damaged, often beyond repair".

But the fear of marauders -- both among rebels and volunteer forces fighting alongside Ukrainian troops -- have pressed many to brave the mine-strewn fields to try to recover household items.

Others have moved to the town of Berdyanske just 500 metres (yards) to the west. The one-time resort is separated from Shyrokyne by an abandoned minefield that is now an indelible part of the devastated landscape.

"Here, we only travel by road," 64-year-old Kateryna Omelchuk said while spreading feed for chickens she knows will soon die of starvation because the rich surrounding earth has remained unploughed for nearly two years.

"We have not ventured into the fields in a long time. And this year, the tractor drivers refused to work my vegetable plot," she sighed.

"I will have to kill them all," Omelchuk said of her chickens. "Even the animals are suffering from the war."

- Mutual recriminations -

Shyrokyne technically lies within a 30-kilometre (20-mile) wide buffer zone that stretches for 500 kilometres and splits militia-run regions from the rest of Ukraine.

For many, a two-month lull in fighting is now a distant memory because of daily shelling by opposing forces on the edge of town.

"The (September 1) armistice is broken every day," local Ukrainian military spokesman Oleksandr Kindsfater told AFP.

"Allowing residents into Shyrokyne now would only further endanger their lives. The tripwires are everywhere. And so are the (Donetsk) fighters."

Rebels say Ukraine's volunteer Azov battalion -- known for its ferocity and accused by some rights groups of committing war crimes -- is in real control of the tiny town.

Donetsk rebel military commander Eduard Basurin said Azov fighters were keeping residents out to prevent people witnessing what he said were truce violations.

Locals seem to care little about who is actually holding their town.

"People just want to get home and collect their things," said 58-year-old unemployed steelworker Mykola Podobedov.

"Both sides are stealing everything they can lay their hands on."