Posted on August 11th, 2016 by:

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17 million land mines are buried in the sands of northwest Egypt, remnants of the war between the British, Italian and Nazi Armies that ended more than 70 years ago. Past a demarcated line, one walks into the past and still faces the same dangers that young soldiers dealt with during WWII.

Since the war ended, the minefields of the Sahara have killed many local Bedouins who inadvertently stepped on the mines. Recently, these old relics of World War Two are becoming a weapon in a new war. Terrorists of ISIS and other extremist groups have found a new way to use these old weapons for killing people.

Military and civilian officials in Cairo say terror groups have reworked these old land mines, using their parts to make new bombs and IEDs. “We’ve had at least 10 reports from the military of terrorists using old mines. Even now, these things trouble us in different ways.” Says Fathy el-Shazly, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia who until recently served as Egypt’s land mine clearance head.

land mines

Clearing WWII land mines in Egypt. (Photo: Mike Nelson/EPA )

El-Shazly says it began in 2004, when extremists killed 34 people in the Sinai resort of Taba with seven bombs made from old munitions.

Digging up old munitions from World War Two is dangerous, but people who are poor can make money doing this to sell them for scrap metal. “They do this because they have nothing else to live on,” says Abdul Moneim Waer, who lost three fingers to a mine as a youth and now advocates land mine awareness in El Alamein.

Egypt is not the only country in the region where World War II armaments have been found for sale. A 1942 dated Lee-Enfield rifle that Kurdish Peshmerga captured from ISIS appeared in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu. In Mali, authorities have dug up a stockpile of more than 10,000 old European guns.

In Libya, arms researchers have discovered an array of old weaponry. “We’ve seen several dozen British Webley revolvers previously or presently for sale, and then some Italian cavalry carbines, some Mausers, Bren guns,” says N.R. Jenzen-Jones of Armament Research Services, an independent arms consultancy.

The mined deserts of Egypt also protect smugglers and Jihadists who melt away there as government and army personnel do not venture into the area leaving their illegal movements unrestricted.

Egyptian authorities say they’ve accelerated clearance efforts of the mines. Three million mines have been removed since 1981, clearing 600,000 acres of land. The government states the rest will be disposed of within the next three years.

Three years is a long time for people living in the area. They’ve seen American and Croatian oil workers kidnapped and killed over the past two years. The government’s effort to fight the terrorists have sometimes caused casualties as well. Eight Mexican tourists were killed last year when an Egyptian Apache helicopter mistook them for jihadis and opened fire. Energy companies have worked out a system of flying colored flags from their jeeps when traveling in restricted areas, and working with liaison officers.

For the native Bedouin, they blame the people who planted the mines. “They’re getting away from their responsibility,” says Ahmed Amer, head of the Land Mine Survivors Association in Marsa Matruh. He blames the European countries who planted the mines “They can’t just come here and then go away,” he adds. “They must clean this up.”

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