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(New York) - The de facto opposition authority in Libya, the National Transitional Council, has formally pledged not to use antipersonnel and antivehicle landmines,  Human Rights Watch said today. The council also promised to destroy all mines in its forces' possession.

The pledge was made to Human Rights Watch on April 27, 2011, and in an official communiqué signed on April 28 by Abdulhafeeth Gogha, vice chairman of the National Transitional Council.

"The decision by Libya's opposition forces to reject landmines is terrific because mines have killed and maimed so many civilians around the world," said Steve Goose, Arms director at Human Rights Watch. "We urge the National Transitional Council to implement its decision right away, and we call on the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi to make the same commitment on behalf of civilians in war."

The communiqué on landmines states that "no forces under the command and control of the NTC will use antipersonnel or antivehicle landmines."   The council pledged to destroy all landmines possessed by forces under its command and control, and to "cooperate in the provision of mine clearance, risk education, and victim assistance."

Any future Libya government should "relinquish landmines and join the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty," the communiqué said.

At a meeting with Human Rights Watch in Benghazi on April 27, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, said the council is "committed to the international consensus that these [landmines] are prohibited."

The field commander of rebel forces in eastern Libya, Gen. Khalifa Hufter, and head of the rebels' Military Council, Omar Hariri, made the same pledge at a meeting on April 20.

"We completely refuse to use landmines because it affects our civilians," Hufter said.

Other participants at the April 20 meeting included rebel military spokesman Col. Ahmed Banni and representatives from the Mines Advisory Group (MAG International), the United Nations Mines Action Service (UNMAS), and Handicap International.

Rebel authorities had previously told Human Rights Watch that forces under their control would not use landmines. Despite that promise, a BBC news report on April 17 showed rebel fighters removing plastic antivehicle mines from their vehicles and then placing them on the side of the main road into Ajdabiya. In addition, two witnesses told Human Rights Watch that rebel forces had transferred antivehicle mines from Benghazi to Misrata.

Hufter and Omar Hariri told Human Rights Watch on April 20 that they had not authorized the transfer of mines to Misrata or their placement around Ajdabiya. They said they had ordered the recently laid landmines to be cleared and promised to punish those who laid them.

"We hope the rebel authorities stick to their promises in the communiqué and immediately stop using landmines, remove all mines that were placed, and destroy the mines in their possession," Goose said.

Human Rights Watch has identified the mines in the BBC video from Ajdabiya as Belgian-produced PRB-M3 mines. Human Rights Watch has seen tens of thousands of these mines in weapons depots in Benghazi that rebel forces seized after the withdrawal of government forces in February.

The PRB-M3 mine is extremely difficult for deminers to detect because it consists almost entirely of plastic. This mine can be equipped with a sensitive fuze as its initiating charge, causing it to function as an antipersonnel mine, thereby posing a risk to civilians on foot and in vehicles. When used with a sensitive fuze, the PRB-M3 meets the definition of an antipersonnel mine under the international Mine Ban Treaty.

Human Rights Watch has also seen a variant of the PRB-M3 mine in rebel-controlled stockpiles that is even more dangerous to deminers and civilians. This variant is equipped with an auxiliary fuze well, for fitting an anti-handling device to the mine - in effect booby-trapping the mine so that it will explode if anyone tries to move it.

Based on the BBC video footage, it appears that the rebel fighters in Ajdabiya were not marking or mapping the PRB-M3 mines they had placed. This would greatly complicate the location and destruction of mines after the fighting, Human Rights Watch said.

Libya is not among the 156 states parties to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, which comprehensively bans the use, production, and transfer of all antipersonnel mines, requires destruction of stockpiles within four years and clearance of mined areas within ten years, and calls for assistance to landmine victims.

While the landmine treaty does not ban use of antivehicle mines, such mines are often deployed in violation of international humanitarian law (the laws of war), notably when forces use them indiscriminately or deliberately to target civilians, or when they do not take adequate precautions to avoid civilian casualties.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented the use of antipersonnel mines and antivehicle mines by Libyan government forces around Ajdabiya, as well as their use of cluster munitions in Misrata.

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