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Experts estimate that fighters seeded Croatia with up to 3 million land mines

When civil war erupted in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the scenic valleys of Plitvice Lakes National Park ended up squarely in the crossfire. For years, armies on several sides of the conflict used the park's forests and caves for shelter. But even after peace came, the Croatian park was left with vivid reminders of the war, from a tortured landscape to thousands of hidden landmines.

Experts estimate that fighters seeded Croatia with up to 3 million land mines -- buried explosives that can be triggered by the lightest footfall or tremor. Once buried and armed, they are extremely dangerous to find and remove. Indeed, many nations have moved to ban landmines because they kill and maim indiscriminately, even long after conflicts end. Around the world, an estimated 50 million to 100 million abandoned mines kill and injure thousands of people every year, including children. In Croatia, mines killed two people and injured more than 20 in 2003 alone.

For Croatia's new government, de-mining the nation became a top priority. One key target area: The lands around Plitvice park, which was more likely to attract tourists again once the area was safe.

The work was difficult and dangerous. Typically, human de-miners must locate mines using long, slender probes, which they carefully push into the ground. When they feel a mine, they must dig it up and defuse it. Dozens of de-miners have lost their lives in the process.

Sometimes, dogs can help locate mines. Using their incredibly sensitive noses, dogs can literally smell the explosive chemicals used in the devices. But mine dogs tire easily, and can sometimes work for just a few hours a day.

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A view of Plitvice
Plitvice is now free of land mines.
To get around that problem, scientists have tried to build "electronic dog's noses" that can spot mines. So far, however, such devices have proved difficult to build -- and expensive. Other tools, from metal-detecting radars to tractor-pulled plows that can "harvest" mines, have also proved of limited help.

Still, by 1998, de-miners were able to make the Plitvice region safe for visitors once more. But they still warn local residents and visitors to be careful, since mines and unexplored ordinance can show up in unexpected places. School children even watch videos that teach them how to watch out for mines -- and not touch any that they find.

People aren't the only potential victims of mines. Wildlife can suffer too. In Croatia, researcher Djuro Huber of the University of Zagreb has reported that mines have killed European brown bears, deer, lynxes, and foxes.

Meanwhile, Croatia's de-mining efforts continue. In 2002 alone, de-miners found and destroyed more than 100,000 of the weapons and related explosives. But finishing the job won't be easy: The government recently estimated that it could cost more than $500 million, and take nearly a decade.
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