Vientiane, Sep 7 (IANS) US President Barack Obama on a visit to Laos, a first for any sitting US President, said he believed the “US has a moral obligation to help the country heal”.
Obama referred to America’s secret and devastating bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the ’70s, and announced that $90 million will be spent over three years for the removal of cluster bombs and other unexploded ordnance from the country’s soil, BBC reported.
The US President did not offer an apology for the bombing which left more than 50,000 people dead.
Obama held a prosthetic limb as he toured the Cooperative Orthotic and Prothetic Enterprise (COPE) visitor centre here on Wednesday.
In his comments on Tuesday, he described Laos as the most heavily bombed nation in history.
Eight bombs a minute were dropped on an average during the Vietnam War between 1964 and 1973 — more than the bombs used during the whole of World War II.
The US flew 580,344 bombing missions over Laos, dropping 260 million bombs — equating to two million tons of ordnance, with many targets in the south and north struck time and again as part of efforts to isolate Communist North Vietnamese forces.
Ten of the 18 Laotian provinces have been described as “severely contaminated” by unexploded ordnance (UXO).
Mine-clearing agencies estimate that about 288 million cluster munitions and about 75 million unexploded bombs were left across Laos after the war ended.
They pose a significant threat to civilians because of both their impact at the time of use and their deadly legacy.
Laos is likely to ask for an extension to its commitment to get rid of UXO when convention member states next meet in August 2020.
Obama’s announcement has been widely welcomed by aid agencies working to address the UXO problem in Laos, which include the Halo Trust, the Mines Advisory Group, Norwegian People’s Aid, UXO Laos and Handicap International.
“Before the President’s announcement I feared that the UXO operation in Laos would take hundreds of years,” Mines Advisory Group country director Simon Rea told the BBC here. “Now I am optimistic this can be reduced to decades.”
Likewise Halo Trust CEO James Cowan said the President’s announcement will have a profound effect on the people of Laos.
Aid agencies have also gained access to Pentagon bombing records so that they can identify which areas of land — mostly the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the south and the Lao Communist Party headquarters in the north — were bombed and likely to contain unexploded bombs.
Obama is the first US President to visit Laos and has adopted a noticeably conciliatory approach towards his hosts. He said that the US bombings had destroyed “villages and entire valleys, killing countless civilians”.
His approach has been welcomed by Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit as a way of enhancing mutual trust between the two countries after the devastating war.