Flooding in Bosnia causes new landmine danger in Balkans

Worst deluge in a century causes fears that landslides might carry unexploded ordnance downstream, as far as Bulgaria and Romania

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 3:27am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 May, 2014, 10:42am

The worst floods in over a century have swept away people, homes and roads in the Balkans. And now the deluge is giving way to another deadly menace: the threat of landmines.

Floods washed away river banks and caused landslides that have unearthed minefield warning signs and, in many cases, the unexploded booby traps themselves. As the weapons are carried downstream, countries as far away as Bulgaria and Romania may be at risk, experts warn.

Watch: Dozens dead in massive flooding in Bosnia, Serbia

Bosnia's tributaries feed the Sava River, which runs along the Croatia border and meets the Danube in Serbia. The Danube then flows through Bulgaria and Romania into the Black Sea.

Authorities say that, before the flooding, hidden mines threatened 2.4 per cent of Bosnian territory and more than half a million nearby residents.

Since the end of Bosnia's 1992-95 war, mines have killed at least 601 people and wounded 1,121. Four people have been killed and eight wounded already this year.

An official at Bosnia's Mine Action Centre, Sasa Obradovic, said his agency would deploy mine-hunting scouts from today. "Mines have surfaced now in areas where they have never been," he said.

Experts warn that mines could travel through half of southeast Europe or get stuck in the turbines of a hydroelectric dam. "We will work with Croatia and Serbia on the problem," Obradovic said.

Authorities have spent two decades trying to unearth the one million landmines planted during the war. Before the floods, nearly 120,000 remained in 9,416 marked minefields.

Under an international treaty, Bosnia was supposed to be mine-free by March 2009, but that deadline proved impossible to meet. Europe's most mine-infested nation received a new deadline of 2019 to clear remaining mines and other unexploded ordnance.

Three months' worth of rain fell on the region in a three-day burst, causing the worst floods since records began 120 years ago. About 300 landslides have been reported, and stranded villagers are even being rescued by helicopter.

"The situation is catastrophic," said Bosnia's refugee minister, Adil Osmanovic.

River levels were still rising in the Serbian capital Belgrade and west towards the Bosnian border, threatening power stations where volunteers joined the army and emergency services in building sandbag barriers.

Tens of thousands of homes were without electricity in Serbia and around 150,000 in Bosnia, where whole swathes of the northeast of the country were under water.

Observed from the air, almost a third of Bosnia chiefly in the northeast resembles a huge muddy lake, with houses, roads and rail lines submerged.

Officials say about a million people - more than a quarter of the country's population - live in the worst-affected areas. Bosnia has reported 24 deaths so far.

The hillside village of Horozovina, close to the northeastern town of Tuzla, was practically split in two by a landslide that swallowed eight houses.

More than 100 other houses were under threat from the restless earth. Residents told stories of narrow escapes from injury or death.

"I am homeless. I have nothing left, not even a toothpick," said one resident, Mesan Ikanovic. "I ran out of the house barefoot, carrying children in my arms."

I ran out of the house barefoot, carrying children in my arms
Mesan Ikanovic

Semid Ivilic described the moment when, sitting inside his home, the terrain outside begun to slide. "It sounded like a huge explosion. People started running out of houses, screaming," he said.

While water levels are receding in some parts of Bosnia, land flanking the Sava River remains submerged, and water levels there are still rising in many areas.

Russian cargo planes joined helicopters from the European Union, Slovenia and Croatia in the rescue efforts.

They have been deployed in areas around five cities in central and northeastern Bosnia where the situation is considered the most dangerous.

Additional reporting by Reuters