SUICIDE SQUADS of highly trained bomb disposal experts are being prepared to
help clear up the world’s landmine problem. But there won’t be weeping widows on the dockside
to greet any homecoming bodies, for the heroic minesweepers are rats. The giant rodents, imported
from Africa, are being trained to form bomb squads by scientists in Belgium. They are taught to
locate anti-personnel mines and bombs that litter countries such as Angola and Mozambique,
killing and maiming thousands of people each year. Because the “desert rats” will be working
in countries where they are kept and hunted for their flesh, no ecological damage will be caused
if they go AWOL and escape into the wilderness. Scientist Bart Weetjens and his team in Beurne,
Belgium, have found the rats to be mostly willing volunteers. Using a regime of electric shocks
and rewards of food and water, they are being taught how to sniff out all sorts of bombs, including
plastic explosives and TNT. The rats must locate suspect sandbags and find which ones have
TNT inside, using their highly sensitive sense of smell. Some rats will be taught to locate mines,
others will be trained as “suicide squads” to set off the explosives if there is no other way of getting
rid of them.
Dr. Weetjens said: “Some of the rats were not so keen to learn at first, so we had to persuade
them with an unpleasant shock or two — not painful, just enough to get them moving. “When they
can find explosives, we reward them with food. “Gradually we increase the difficulty until they can
find TNT buried inside sandbags. When they have become good at that, we move on to suspect
explosive devices buried in sand.” So far, the team has been pleased with the rodents’ progress.
Dr. Weetjens added: “These giant rats are actually quite good at finding explosives. The benefits
of using rats rather than people to clear mines are obvious. Mine clearance is a terribly difficult
and dangerous task.” The suicide squad starts work in November, financed by funds from Belgium’s
overseas aid budget. Landmines have become an international issue since Princess Diana took up the
cause in the year before her death.