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MAPUTO (Reuters) - Mozambique declared itself free of landmines on Thursday, ending two decades of work to rid the country of a legacy of war that killed or maimed thousands of people, many of them civilians.
The effort to rid the Southern African nation of landmines was spearheaded by the HALO Trust, a British charity that has cleared mines in several countries.
HALO said it had cleared more than 171,000 landmines from 1,100 minefields in Mozambique since 1993 and had finally destroyed the last known mine.
"I have honor to declare Mozambique as a country free of the threat of landmines," Foreign Affairs Minister Oldemiro Baloi said at a ceremony in the capital Maputo.
Mozambique was at war almost continuously for decades, firstly in a war of independence against its Portuguese colonial rulers.
Following the Portuguese pull-out in 1975, the ruling Frelimo government battled Renamo rebels in a conflict that was in part a Cold War proxy. It ended with a peace agreement in 1992.
"I am happy that nobody else will end up like me. I am happy because people can carry on their lives without fearing the menace of the landmines," said 29-year-old Jose Chiango, whose right-leg was amputated from the knee down after he trod on a mine in an eastern rural district.
He now hobbles around on crutches, guarding cars in Maputo.
"It is wonderful to learn that the country is finally free of landmines," he said.
The exact human toll caused by landmines in the country will never be known. But a major report in 1994 by Human Rights Watch said landmines claimed between 10,000 to 15,000 victims.
HRW estimated 8,000 amputees had received medical treatment and thousands more people had been killed or did not seek medical treatment.
All sides had used the devices, HRW said, often directly against civilians and in an indiscriminate fashion. And the mines continued to kill or maim even after the guns fell silent.
In a traditionally poor country, eliminating the mine menace will also help spur development in an economy that has seen growth rates of 8 percent, propelled by huge coal and gas deposits being tapped by foreign investors.
HALO said the mine clearance has helped Mozambique develop its infrastructure, access vital commodities, increase tourism and attract international investment. Communities can now cultivate crops and graze livestock safely, HALO said.
Street vendor Aldina Mondlane, 48, agreed.
"No more people will live side by side with a hidden and deadly enemy. I think that is important because it clears the land for us to use in agriculture," she told Reuters.
"When the war ended, in my village, a lot of people were killed and maimed, not with bullets, but the landmines."
Ridding the world of landmines, which remain buried in the ground long after a conflict ends, has for decades been a goal of campaigners. The 1997 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines
The 1999 Ottawa Convention prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel landmines. While backed by most countries, the treaty has not been endorsed by the United States, Russia, China and India.
The HALO Trust works in five other African countries and hopes that by the end of 2017, the break-away enclave of Somaliland will be the next place on the continent declared landmine free.
Reporting by Manuel Mucari, Writing by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Angus MacSwan