Eritrea: Feature - Sniffing out mines

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SELALO, 27 February (IRIN) - Working upwind and almost at the full extent of her 10-metre leash, Sasha suddenly doubles back and excitedly begins to circle a particular spot. After scratching the ground for a moment she sits and looks back expectantly at her handler, who raises his arm and shouts "mine!"

On command, Sasha scampers back to receive her reward - a few minutes' play with her favourite rubber ball - while the rest of the team set to work unearthing what is later identified as a Russian made PMN-1 anti-personnel landmine.

"It's the only payment she needs," says Semere Tesfai, mine detection dog supervisor with the Washington DC-based demining company, RONCO. "On a good day, one dog can do the work of 10 deminers armed with detectors."


Sasha, a Belgian Malinois, is one of 12 dogs RONCO have been using to help clear hundreds of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines that still litter the former no-man's land in front of the trenches at Selalo, about 26 km west of the town of Tsorona. The company arrived in the country in 2001 and undertakes humanitarian mine clearance and training under a contract with the US State Department and in cooperation with the Eritrean Demining Authority (EDA) and the UN's Mine Action Coordination Centre (MACC) based in Asmara.

Bred in Holland and trained in the USA, at US $14,000 each dog is expensive. But with the ability to smell the explosives from mines that have been more than five years in the ground, they can sweep up to 1,000 square metres of minefield in a single day. On ground where the debris of war has accumulated, deminers using metal detectors generally cannot clear more than 50 to 100 square metres a day as they have to meticulously probe every time a signal is detected, often unearthing nothing more than a metal fragment or rifle round. In the rocky scrublands that mark this part of the Eritrean border and under an unrelenting sun, the work is hot, demanding and potentially very dangerous.


Mostly of Russian, eastern European, Chinese, Belgium and American origin, the mines were drawn from stocks left over from the 30 year civil war that ended in 1991 with Eritrean independence from Ethiopia. The few years of peaceful coexistence with Ethiopia was shattered in May 1998 when the two countries went to war over their common border. During two years of sporadic but often intense fighting, an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 landmines were employed by the two sides to protect defensive positions. As the two armies withdrew from the 25 km-wide buffer zone, known as the Temporary Security Zone (TSZ), combat engineers began clearing the minefields, but the work was incomplete and many areas were left either intact or with undetected (and often unmapped) mines still in the ground.

RONCO, like other humanitarian demining agencies working in Eritrea, undertakes its work to exacting international standards, monitored by experts from the MACC.

"While military engineers will be happy if they clear 98 percent of mines, we aim to guarantee 100 percent clearance," says Dave Turner, head of operations for RONCO in Selalo. Military combat engineers are trained to breach minefields quickly to allow their forces to cross. In these circumstances, casualties are inevitable and the risks acceptable. The task for humanitarian deminers is to make sure every landmine and all unexploded ordnance are found and removed, allowing local people to return to their homes and former way of life without fear or danger.

According to Dave Turner, safety margins and ample backup are built into all aspects of RONCO's operations in Eritrea and are part of a training programme designed to help build an effective demining capacity in the country. The company's 12 mine detection dogs are also subject to strict checks and controls, with regular training and certification taking place to ensure that their ability to find buried mines can be relied upon.

"Every morning, before they start work, the dogs are checked out on a test ground sown with defused mines and at weekends we run refresher courses for both dogs and their handlers," Turner told IRIN. "Once one dog team has completed sweeping a plot, another double checks the same area to provide the assurance that no mines have been missed."

Using a combination of manual demining methods and dogs, since August 2002 nearly one million square metres of minefields have been cleared without a single serious incident, RONCO says. Nonetheless, an ambulance and medical staff remain on site ready to respond should an accident occur, and a helicopter belonging to the UN Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE) can be scrambled to provide quick evacuation to a hospital in Asmara.


Within the TSZ, an estimated 660 sq km are believed to be contaminated with landmines. This means that clearance work is set to take many years. The use of dogs and mechanical flails - large wheeled or tracked machines that turn or beat the ground to destroy landmines - can help speed the clearance process, but according to demining experts such specialist approaches are expensive and cannot be used in every circumstance.

On rocky terrain or the dense bush lands that characterise much of the Eritrean border region, there is often no alternative to using time consuming manual methods. The departure in August 2002 of several humanitarian demining agencies at the request of the Eritrean government - which accused them being slow and expensive, and of operating in areas where there were no landmines - has also affected clearance work. Along with RONCO, another demining company, the UK-based HALO Trust, has been allowed to continue its work.

Despite the difficulties, steady progress continues to be made on the ground. According to MACC, international and domestic demining agencies have cleared minefields totalling over 30 sq km since January 2001, disposing of more than 4,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines and 55,000 other unexploded munitions. Mine strikes continue to occur, however, and a recent spate of such incidents in the western sector of the TSZ, thought to have been caused by newly laid mines, have led to a number of deaths and injuries.

Back in Selalo, with the sun rising high in the sky, the day's work is coming to an end. While the dogs and their handlers rest under the shade of a large tree, Dave Turner and his Eritrean team of experts prepare to safely detonate a large anti-tank landmine found earlier, placing the device deep in a ravine. The loud explosion echoes off the surrounding hill and cloud of black smoke rises quickly into the sky.


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