WASHINGTON -- Nearly 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the United States is increasing aid to help remove unexploded ordnance that continues to kill people in the former war zone, especially in Laos, where 2 million tons of bombs were dropped.
The United States has agreed to nearly double the amount of aid it provides to help remove those bombs, known as unexploded ordnance, or UXO. Congress approved $2.5 million for bomb removal in Laos next year, up from $1.4 million, as part of a move to normalize trade relations with the impoverished Southeast Asian country.
The United States bombed Laos relentlessly for about a decade in an effort to cut off North Vietnamese supply lines. Though the war ended in 1975, the carnage from those bombings continues.
Nearly a third of the bombs failed to explode, becoming "de facto antipersonnel mines," according to a Human Rights Watch report. The bombs have killed some 6,000 Laotians since the end of the fighting.
"Every time I go to Laos I meet fresh bomb victims who have lost an eye or a leg or two," said Jim Harris, a retired Wisconsin school principal who helps educate people about the experience of Laotian refugees in his state.
US pilots dropped 2 million tons of bombs on Laos from 1964 to 1973, double the amount dropped on Germany in World War II.
Some critics have opposed the improved trade relations and the increase in funding for bomb removal. They said Laos continues to persecute its Hmong minority, who fought alongside the CIA during the Vietnam War.
"Why should the US taxpayer pay to remove land mines and unexploded ordnance from the Vietnam War when the Lao government and military are involved in military operations against the Hmong people?" asked Philip Smith, the Washington director of Lao Veterans of America.
But Representative Betty McCollum, Democrat of Minnesota, said the United States "has a moral obligation to partner with the people of Laos to help eliminate the ordnance and put the land back into productive use for this impoverished nation."
Many of the Hmong people who fled Laos settled in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
While the Laotian government is in charge of bomb removal, it relies on help from other countries and groups to help pay for it. The Laotian bomb-removal agency, UXO Lao, was at a crisis point a couple of years ago.
"Money wasn't coming in in sufficient numbers, and UXO Lao had to let go of half of its employees," said Douglas A. Hartwick, the US ambassador to Laos from 2001 until July. "So there was a big push on the part of donors and the Lao government to put together a long-term coherent strategy to clean up the unexploded bombs."
The agency's annual budget is about $4 million, according to its website. Officials with UXO Lao did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.
Hartwick said the process to remove explosives, using metal detectors, is painstakingly slow.
"You're getting constant hits with a metal detector," Hartwick said. "You've got shrapnel like you wouldn't believe, plus bullets, mortars, and grenades."
The Mine Advisory Group, a nongovernmental organization in Great Britain that helps destroy land mines and unexploded ordnance worldwide, is one of several private groups that receive US money for work in Laos.
Sean Sutton, the group's spokesman, said "it's welcome news that the United States is doing more to help."
When he was visiting Laos in October, seven people were killed when a man hit a bomb while chopping wood, he said. A few days later, he said, two boys were killed when playing with cluster bomblets, which are as big as tennis balls.
He said many of the injuries and fatalities occur when poor Laotians are attracted to the explosives in search of scrap metal. They can get $1 for 7 pounds of steel or about 2 pounds of aluminum.
"For a typical family making $400 a year farming, a dollar is worth an awful lot," Sutton said.