Rats trained for front-line role in landmine search (Colombia)

COLOMBIA, awash with landmines as its civil conflict enters its 43rd year, is developing a new weapon to detect explosives: rats.


The country's rebels, faced by a US-backed army offensive, are deploying more and more homemade mines, known as quiebrapatos, literally translated as "foot breakers". The casualty rate among the police and army bomb disposal experts and the explosive-sniffing dogs is unsustainably high, so the Colombian authorities have decided to use rats in the detection role.

"These animals have an average weight of just 500 grams, much less than that necessary to trigger a mine," said Colonel Cifuentes Morales, in charge of the rat programme at the police academy in Sibate, near Bogota. "A rat can pass over a mine and not activate it, whereas a dog would be blown to pieces."
The pilot programme began with eight rats, although two have died during training. The six survivors live in a dedicated laboratory at the police academy and for two hours every day are put in a maze and set tracking down explosives.

"The animals are conditioned to receive a prize, normally a sugar lump, when they track down any explosive material," said Luisa Fernanda Méndez, a veterinarian.

Despite almost a year of training it is estimated that the rats will not go into service for another six months, but if successful new recruits could be trained up in large numbers with the advantage they are unlikely to cause many tears if killed in the line of duty.

Traditional tactics by the security forces have failed to slow the spread of landmines and explosive devices that the guerrillas are liberally scattering around their camps, drug fields and along paths where army patrols walk. What makes their detection so difficult is that they are made wholly of plastic. The plastic explosive is placed in cut sections of tubing of the kind used in household guttering.

Civilians are increasingly the victims and people missing limbs are a common sight begging at traffic lights in cities. There are an average of three incidents involving mines every day in Colombia, which has now climbed to the top of the global league table for landmine casualties, overtaking Cambodia and Afghanistan.

Von: 8.5.2006 JEREMY MCDERMOTT, news.scotsman.com

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