28. May 2009

On trial - a faster more reliable way to clear mined roads

In Angola, new demining technologies for unearthing difficult-to-detect plastic anti-tank mines and clear the road network are being tried.

Angola is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, the legacy of decades of conflict. The war of independence against the colonial power, Portugal, was followed by the Cold War conflict waged by apartheid South Africa against the Soviet-backed MPLA government, and the final stand-off between the government and Jonas Savimbi's National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) rebels.

Military hardware from the US, Portugal, China, the former Soviet Union and Cuba, among others, turned Angola into a veritable museum of mines. The death of Savimbi in 2002 ended the war, leaving millions of the deadly devices active.

"In some places we find FAA [Angolan Armed Forces, formed in 1992 to replace the People's Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola (FAPLA)] mines on top of Cuban/FAPLA mines, and occasionally UNITA thrown in as well," said Richard Grindle, programme manager in Angola for the Hazardous Area Life-Support Organisation (HALO), the demining NGO.

"In Kuito [a main city in Bie Province in the central highlands] the minefields of both sides ran right through the centre of town," he told IRIN. HALO cleared Kuito's minefields and other hazardous ordnance several years ago.

Thousands of hectares of minefields have been cleared, and 4,473km of roads made safe, but at current levels of international donor support, removing all the unexploded ordnance is expected to take another decade or so. Landmines have killed and maimed thousands of people in Angola.

From a military view point, laying a few mines effectively renders thousands of kilometres of road impassable, but in times of peace they prevent entry to areas that could be used for agriculture, housing or accessing water, and make it impossible for humanitarian organizations to reach people requiring assistance.

"With most minefields, it is easy enough to work out why the mines were laid - usually to protect a military position, a town, a bridge, a dam or a pylon [power]line - and hence where to look for them," Grindle said.

"With roads we are talking about 'nuisance mining' – a few mines laid apparently at random over a very wide area - but even one anti-tank mine can cause a horrific accident to a bus or truck full of people, so we have to clear the whole road from end to end," he said.

"On the Planalto [the central highlands, Angola's most fertile region] we found one anti-tank mine every 55km on average. In Cuando Cubango [Province, bordering Namibia and Zambia in the southeast] so far it has been one every 16km, but these were metal mines, which can be found quite easily with metal detectors."

"Not only do they [mines] close a road to the local population, they hamper our efforts to get out and survey or clear the minefields that lie further down the road," Grindle said. HALO has confirmed 840 minefields in the five provinces where it operates - Benguela, Bie, Huambo, Huila and Cuando Cubango.

Initial results are promising, but there is quite a bit of work to do before we can be satisfied that it is 100 percent reliable, and that it can clear roads fast enough [including plastic anti-tank mines] to make a real impactNew technologies on trial

Detecting plastic mines is much harder. Since 2004 HALO has used "detonation trailers", which simulate the weight of a heavily laden truck and are towed behind armoured tractors, to set off anti-tank mines, but the success of the trailers has been limited, especially on the sandy roads found in most of the provinces, Grindle said.

"The only way of clearing plastic mines has been by full mechanical excavation of the road, which is simply not viable over more than a few kilometres." HALO is trying two new systems to speed up road clearance safely.

The Rotary Mine Comb (RMC) looks like a plough mounted on the front of bulldozer, and travels down the road, "gently extricating buried objects from the soil and pushing them to the side of the host vehicle's path", according to the manufacturers, Humanitarian Demining R&D Program, a division of the US Department of Defense. Grindle said the RMC could clear up to 800 metres a day, including plastic anti-tank mines.

In May 2009, HALO began trials with Mine Stalker, a joint innovation by Non-Intrusive Inspection Technology (NIITEK) and the US army countermine division. Mine Stalker underwent a three-week evaluation in Cambodia in February 2008 and detected "all anti-tank mines that it encountered, buried to a depth of 20cm," NIITEK said on its website.

The system uses a 2.4m wide ground-penetrating radar mounted at the front of a remote-controlled six-wheeled vehicle, "that enables the vehicle to automatically stop and physically mark any detected mine-like object ... [which] allows follow-on demining teams to quickly locate and interrogate" the marked areas.

"Initial results are promising, but there is quite a bit of work to do before we can be satisfied that it is 100 percent reliable, and that it can clear roads fast enough [including plastic anti-tank mines] to make a real impact," Grindle said.

"If Mine Stalker can help us open the roads in southern Cuando Cubango, then we can do something about the rest of the mine problem there." (IRIN)


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