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Landmines must go, but how?

Turkey has thousands of landmines on its border with Syria. Will it sacrifice national sovereignty to get rid of them?

Turkish soldiers use mine detectors to search for landmines during a patrol on a road outside the south-eastern Turkish town of Sirnak, Feb. 24, 2008. (Fatih Saribas/Reuters)

ISTANBUL — Along the Turkish-Syrian border lies a neglected, uncultivated stretch of land that has recently become the center of a political minefield for the Turkish government.

The area is riddled with hundreds of thousands of landmines — the legacy of Turkish policies stemming from the Cold War era — and the question of who will clear and destroy them has roiled the country and exposed divisions within the government.

Opposition to the bill centers on a provision that would allow the work to be subcontracted to a private company that specializing in mine clearing in exchange for 44-year leases on the land to be used for organic farming.

The Constitutional Court ruled last week to partially halt the execution of the bill, which is supported by the governing party. The court suspended the controversial provision after opposition parties said it threatened ties with Damascus and national security. The court is expected to rule at a later date on whether to scrap the law entirely.

“The bill is now dysfunctional … there is nothing left of the demining bill for the moment,” said Mehmet Gunal, a deputy of the opposition Nationalist Movement Party.

Turkey’s mine problem is serious. During the 1950s, following a rise in border smuggling, Turkey planted hundreds of thousands of mines along the border with Syria, especially along Turkey’s southeast frontier. It later planted even more mines to prevent crossing by separatist Kurdish rebels seeking refuge in Syria.

Today, the 176-square-kilometer area is riddled with 615,000 landmines. Under the Ottawa Treaty, which Ankara ratified in 2003, Turkey has until 2014 to clear its border territories of landmines.

Although the Turkish military had initially started doing some of this work before 2003, it was later determined that it lacks the equipment and expertise to finish the job. One solution, proposed by the government, was to subcontract the work to a private company that specializes in mine clearing in exchange for 44-year leases on the land to be used for organic farming.

It is this idea of leasing Turkish soil — a kind of modern interpretation of the old plowshare angle — that has roiled the Turkish public and led to heated — and at times almost violent — debate in the Turkish parliament.