(Adds congressional reaction, background, paragraphs 8-11.)
WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - The United States said on Friday it would no longer produce or purchase landmines that target people, paving the way for Washington to eventually join an international treaty banning the weapons.
The Obama administration stopped short, however, of announcing that it would destroy its large existing stockpile of anti-personnel landmines.
The decision was announced at a review conference of the Mine Ban Treaty in Mozambique, where advocates welcomed the administration's statement but said it did not go far enough because Washington reserved the right to continue using its current stockpile.
"We are diligently pursuing solutions that would be compliant with and ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention - the treaty banning the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of APL (anti-personnel landmines)," the White House said in a statement.
The U.S. delegation attending the review conference declared the administration would "not produce or otherwise acquire any anti-personnel landmines in the future, including to replace existing stockpiles as they expire," the statement said.
The United States has not produced landmines since 1997 but had reserved the right to resume production until Friday's announcement. It is not known to have used anti-personnel landmines in combat since the 1991 Gulf War.
Landmines kill 15,000 to 20,000 people each year, mainly children, women and the elderly, according to a 2008 United Nations report. The Mine Ban Treaty became international law in 1999.
Washington abides by many provisions of the treaty, which had been endorsed by 161 countries as of January but has not been joined by Russia, China, India and the United States.
The United States stopped using long-life anti-personnel mines in 2011 and agreed to destroy its stockpile of 1.3 million of the weapons. But it maintains a supply of so-called smart landmines that can deactivate or self-destruct.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a congressional panel in March that mines were "an important tool in the arsenal of the armed forces."
Some Republican lawmakers questioned the wisdom of Obama's announcement. "(Obama's) announcement today is perfect for a feel good press release but bad for the security of our men and women in uniform," California Representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services committee, said in a statement.
But Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who has pushed for a ban, called the White House's action "incremental, but significant."
"An obvious next step is for the Pentagon to destroy its remaining stockpile of mines, which do not belong in the arsenal of civilized nations," he said in a statement.
Steve Goose of Human Rights Watch welcomed the U.S. announcement, but said it "does not go nearly far enough."
"The U.S. is reserving the right to use its 10 million anti personnel mines until they expire and are no longer usable. It makes little sense to acknowledge that the weapons must be banned due to the humanitarian harm they cause, and yet to insist on being able to use them," he said in an email.
He urged Washington to set a target date for joining the treaty. (Reporting by Steve Holland, David Alexander and Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Sofina Mirza-Reid)