By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian military will open soon a mine clearing center near Yerevan created with the financial assistance of the US government, a senior defense ministry official said on Saturday.
General Mikael Melkonian, who heads the ministry’s foreign relations department, told RFE/RL that construction work on the facility located in a military base in the town of Echmiadzin will be complete by “mid-February.”
He said the center will have modern American equipment designed for detecting and destroying numerous land mines left over from the 1991-94 armed conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan. The US Department of Defense will also provide sniffer dogs and teach local personnel how to use them, he said.
The Pentagon launched the $300,000 project last year before the US Congress’ decision to allocate $4.3 million in military assistance to Armenia in the financial year 2002. US and Armenian military officials have yet to agree on how the funds will be spent. Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said after talks in Yerevan with visiting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on December 15 that he would like to use part of the US military assistance for financing the mine clearing center’s operations.
According to General Melkonian, the center, the first such facility in the South Caucasus, will need continued funding after its opening. He said large swathes of Armenian territory adjacent to Azerbaijan have still to be cleared of mines.
“Especially in the [southeastern] Syunik province there are many areas that need to be de-mined,” he said.
A US army general who visited Armenia in late 2000 said the elimination of minefields in the conflict-ravaged region is “very important” for the US which is working on far-reaching plans for its post-conflict rehabilitation.