By Emil Danielyan
The Armenian military opened on Saturday a U.S.-funded facility that will train and equip personnel for demining areas along the long border with Azerbaijan, still littered with landmines nearly eight years after the end of the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Officials hailed its creation as the first practical manifestation of the unfolding military ties between Armenia and the United States.
Photo: An Armenian soldier in full American demining gear
The Armenian National Demining Center (ANDC) located in the town of Echmiadzin was constructed and equipped with the financial assistance of the U.S. government. The training courses for Armenian sappers will be conducted by U.S. instructors.
“I consider this to be one of the best examples of American-Armenian cooperation and want to thank the U.S. government for its assistance,” Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian said at the opening ceremony. “The center will also contribute to the weakening of tension in those border areas.”
“This is more of a project of collaboration than one of assistance,” U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Ordway said in his welcoming speech. A statement by the U.S. embassy in Yerevan noted that the creation of the facility testifies to Washington’s “strong commitment to Armenia and its citizens.”
U.S. diplomats stressed that the civilian population of the areas bordering on Azerbaijan will be the main beneficiary of the project. “This center is focused more on humanitarian demining,” the embassy’s military attaché, Lieutenant-Colonel Eric von Tersch, told RFE/RL. “We are working with [the Armenian military] to develop a capability to go into civilian areas and pull those mines out.”
The opening ceremony, attended by the top brass of the Armenian armed forces, took place the day before Sarkisian’s departure to Washington for a three-day official visit. His talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld will focus on the use of $4.3 million in American military assistance to Armenia approved by Congress late last year.
The aid is meant to address Armenian concerns over the suspension of decade-long U.S. economic sanctions against Azerbaijan. It is also part of a broader effort to reward the three south Caucasian states for their support to the ongoing U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
“I am traveling to Washington to discuss the start and continuation of Armenian-American military cooperation,” Sarkisian told reporters. He said Yerevan would like most of the American aid to be spent on the upgrading of the communication facilities of the Armenian air-defense forces as well as military training.
Armenia has had a close military alliance with Russia since independence, but is now trying to boost defense links with the U.S. and NATO. “As you know, we and Russia are strategic partners,” said General Mikael Harutiunian, chief of the Armenian army staff. “We now want to develop a no less cordial relationship with the United States and other NATO countries.”
In the words of von Tersch, the opening of the demining center marked a “good start” of the bilateral military ties. “This is a kind of model of the way we will work with the Armenians,” he said.
It is expected that the ANDC will train some 70 Armenian officers and soldiers each year. A single training course will last for three to four months. A group of American instructors has already arrived in Echmiadzin. Most of them are civilian experts working for Ronco, a U.S. company specializing in mine clearing. It was contracted by the U.S. State Department for the Armenia demining project.
“We are getting ready to begin the training of the first students,” said Tony Derriberry, a Ronco specialist on sniffer dogs. “I will teach the students how to utilize and train the dogs to detect the landmines,” he said.
The training program also includes modern techniques of deactivating or destroying landmines, computer training for managing relevant information and humanitarian demining organization.
According to Ambassador Ordway, the instructors will be joined by sappers from the U.S. special forces this summer.