By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colombia, one of the most mine-scarred countries in the world, could be free of landmines in a decade after the government and FARC rebels reached a historic agreement on landmine clearance during peace talks in Cuba, an anti-landmine group said.
Colombia's largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), planted most of the landmines and other unexploded ordnance littered across the country, during its 50-year war against the government.
Just over 11,000 Colombians, including 1,110 children and 4,200 civilians, have been killed or wounded by landmines and other explosive devices since 1990, government figures show.
This gives Colombia the second highest landmine casualty rate, after Afghanistan, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Cluster Munition Coalition (ICBL-CMC).
The agreement to remove the landmines was reached on Saturday by negotiators who have been holding peace talks in Cuba for more than two years.
Some 10,000 government soldiers and FARC rebels will make up demining groups which will share information on the location of mines and work together to clear the 688 municipalities where they have been laid.
"Demining will be a long and complicated process that the government has said can be completed by 2025. Ten years is a tentative estimate but it's possible. The agreement shows there's political will from the government and FARC," said Alvaro Jimenez, head of the Colombian Campaign to Ban Landmines.
"This is a historic decision that will eradicate a big threat facing farmers and communities in rural areas and change their daily reality," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"For demining operations to be completed by 2025, there needs to be an increase in the number of civilians and members of the armed forces involved in demining," he added.
No date has been set for the start of demining operations, but the government has said they could start before a final peace deal is reached.
A key problem is the lack of precise information about where and how many mines are planted across the country, Jimenez said.
The FARC rebels are known to make homemade mines using tins of tuna, plastic containers and soft drinks bottles.
"The exact and real dimension of the problem is not known and precise maps are needed. Information from the FARC about where the mines are located is vital but we also need more information from local communities," Jimenez said.
The humanitarian non-governmental organization, Norwegian People's Aid, is expected to oversee and verify the demining clearance operations, which are estimated to cost more than $100 million, according to local press reports.
Negotiators in Cuba have reached agreement on three of the five points on their peace agenda - land reform, the FARC's participation in political life, and the drug trade.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Tim Pearce)