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From front lines to commerce

Welcome to Kinmen Island, a symbol of warming China-Taiwan ties.

KINMEN, Taiwan — It was once one of Asia's most heavily mined islands.

At the peak of military tensions, windswept, 60-square-mile Kinmen — just a few miles off the Chinese mainland — bristled with more than 73,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines.

They formed a deadly ring around this island; a steel shield buried beneath the sands.

This was a Cold War-era front line, the place where the Nationalists held the line against communist advance.

Now, as in Cambodia, Vietnam and other former Asian war zones, the mines are being dug up, defused and detonated — one at a time, through painstaking and hazardous labor.

It's one marker of how far cross-strait relations have come since the Nationalists split with the Communist "bandits" and made a stand here in 1949.

Now, passenger ferries ply the waters between Kinmen and Chinese cities just out of visibility; there's even talk of building a bridge. The island's steady de-militarization has seen Taiwanese troop levels drop to some 5,000 here, from a Cold War peak of 100,000.

And since the China-friendly president Ma Ying-jeou took power in Taiwan a year ago, the decade-long trend of closer cross-strait ties has accelerated, with a hail of new transport, trade and investment deals.

All of which has turned Kinmen from a forbidding fortress into a convenient commercial mid-point between China and Taiwan's main island.

Kinmen's mine clean-up began in 2007. The island hopes to be mine-free by 2013. Military officials overseeing the project say the work is now more than 30 percent done.

The Taiwan military flew a group of journalists to the island in a pair of U.S.-made C-130 Hercules transport planes to see the de-mining progress.

One thing they're especially proud of is the safety record.

"Our work is extremely dangerous, but we've done a lot of safety preparation since 2007," Lu Sheau-jung, commanding general of the Kinmen Defense Command, told reporters. "So far we've had no accidents and no casualties."

They were serious about journalists' safety too: we had to list our blood type in case of emergency, an ambulance stood (somewhat disconcertingly) at the ready and we all had to strap on armored vests and helmets.

We took cover in a bunker while they detonated three mines, watching on video monitors instead. (This caused grumbling among the photographers, but the military insisted we couldn't stay outside for the bang-bang.)