Representatives of the HALO Trust made the announcement as they marked the 10th anniversary of its permanent presence in Karabakh at an official ceremony attended by the Karabakh Armenian leadership.
Karabakh President Bako Sahakian praised the group’s decade-long demining efforts in his unrecognized republic that have been financed by the U.S. government and non-governmental Western charities. “We regard saved lives as the biggest result and value of the work done by them,” he said in a speech at the ceremony held in Khachen, a village in Karabakh’s eastern Askeran district.
The HALO Trust says that ever since 2000 its has destroyed over 50,000 landmines, cluster munitions and other items of unexploded ordnance in 125 square kilometers of land. According to its regional director, Andrew Moore, that means more than 80 percent of Karabakh territory mined by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces during the 1991-1994 is now considered safe.
Aknaghbyur, a village in southern Karabakh close to the now Armenian-occupied Fizuli district in Azerbaijan proper, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of HALO’s demining efforts. “Six hundred hectares of our agricultural land have been cleared,” Artur Babayan, the village mayor also attending the ceremony, told RFE/RL’s Armenian service. “We had suffered many casualties until then. Thank God, our people are now able to safely cultivate the land.”
Nagorno-Karabakh -- A HALO Trust road sign in an area cleared of landmines, undated.
Karabakh has continued to regularly report civilian casualties even after 2000. According to government data, 74 local residents have been killed and 254 others wounded in landmine explosions over the past decade.
“The most typical result of a mine explosion is limb amputation,” said Vartan Tadevosian, director of the Stepanakert-based Rehabilitation Center for landmine victims. The center’s main objective is to make the maimed victims “as independent as possible in their life,” Tadevosian told RFE/RL.
Moore revealed that HALO, which operates in nine countries and has nearly 8,000 mine-clearers, now plans to expand its operations into some of the Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the war. He said that work will be financed by a fresh grant from the Julia Burke Foundation, a California-based charity that has already supported HALO’s activities in Karabakh since 2007.
“We are extremely grateful for the support of the Julia Burke Foundation and their funding our clearance in the green areas,” Moore told RFE/RL.
“I hope very much that Azerbaijan will not try to influence other potential donors willing to support demining efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh,” said Caroline Cox, a pro-Armenian vice-speaker of the British House of Lords who has frequently visited Karabakh since the early 1990s. She argued that those efforts have a “humanitarian, rather than political” character.
Azerbaijan has repeatedly condemned HALO for engaging in landmine clearance in Karabakh without its permission. Its reaction to the charity’s continued operations there will likely remain the same.