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U.S. landmines policy still under review

By David Alexander

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A review of U.S. landmines policy is ongoing and will take awhile to complete, a State Department spokesman said on Wednesday, clarifying an earlier comment that the Obama administration had concluded it needed the weapons.

"The administration is committed to a comprehensive review of its landmines policy. That review is still ongoing," spokesman Ian Kelly said in a statement.

Speaking ahead of a review conference next weekend in Cartagena, Colombia, on the 10-year-old international Mine Ban Treaty, Kelly said the U.S. policy review was "going to take some time" and while it continued the current policy of declining to join the accord would remain in force.

The Mine Ban Treaty bars the use, stockpiling, production or transfer of antipersonnel mines. It has been endorsed by 156 countries, but the United States, Russia, China, and India are among the countries that have not adopted it.

The United States generally abides by the provisions of the treaty. It has not used antipersonnel mines since the 1991 Gulf War, has not exported any since 1992 and has not produced them since 1997, Steve Goose, director of the Arms Division of Human Rights Watch, told a briefing on Monday.

But it retains a stockpile of some 10 million mines, which would contravene the accord.

Kelly had told a briefing on Tuesday the "administration undertook a policy review and we decided that our land mine policy remains in effect."

"We determined that we would not be able to meet our national defense needs nor our security commitments to our friends and allies if we signed this convention," he said.

Those comments had drawn fire from Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is a longtime advocate of the treaty, and expressions of concerns from anti-mine campaigners.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Wednesday said the administration had conducted an interim review in light of the upcoming summit in Cartagena, and decided the old policy should remain in force so long as the broader review continued.

The United States has decided to send humanitarian mine relief experts from the State Department, Defense Department, U.S. Agency for International Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as observers to Cartagena.

It is the first time the United States has sent observers to a gathering of states that have accepted the treaty. Anti-land mine campaigners saw that decision as an encouraging sign but had hoped the administration would announce its intent to join the treaty at some future point.

The review conference next Sunday is expected to draw more than 1,000 delegates representing more than 100 countries, including ministers and heads of state.

It will look at the progress of a broadly popular treaty that has helped cut land mine casualties around the world and provided relief to victims.

Landmines are known to have caused 5,197 casualties last year, a third of them children, according to the Nobel Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL), which links some 1,000 activist groups.

(Editing by Vicki Allen)