Jeyranchel, in northeastern Azerbaijan covers an area of about 62 square kilometres just along the Georgian border. It was also the site of a live firing range, used from 1955 until 1991 by the former Soviet Army. Now the range lies abandoned and unused, with unexploded munitions littering the ground around it.
After completing a similar six-year project in Saloglu, a new NATO Trust Fund project is helping Azerbaijan to continue clearing a deadly legacy of its Soviet past.
Bolstering previous capacity building
The Jeyranchel region is still littered with large quantities of unexploded tank projectiles, artillery shells, bombs and other types of unexploded ordnances (UXOs). The area also likely contains anti-tank mines with live simulators capable of causing serious injuries if stepped on, munitions dumps and other explosive contamination, and live anti-personnel mines.
With such a high concentration of UXOs, much of it buried beneath the surface, the work to clear the area is both delicate and dangerous. It requires a high level of de-mining expertise.
For this project, the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) will utilise a valuable in-country resource: the Azerbaijani National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA). Gaining expertise over the last decade and during the first Trust Fund project in Saloglu, Azerbaijan, ANAMA has the experience to deal with such a delicate clearing operation.
“NAMSA and ANAMA have a good understanding of the technical and managerial issues associated with clearance projects typical in this area. This project would allow ANAMA to continue to develop its regional capacity,” states Nazim Ismayilov, ANAMA Director. “It is important for ANAMA to provide continuity of work in order to retain their trained workforce which would otherwise be lost to other employment in the area,” he continues.
“This project continues to bolster the expertise of ANAMA,” emphasises Rigo Garza, Political Officer with the United States Mission to NATO. “Azerbaijan went from a country of limited expertise in this area to exporting that same expertise to other countries,” he adds.
Securing the land for local use
In the winter, local farmers graze cattle in the pastures of Jeyranchel. But the UXOs can pose a threat to both local farmers and the State Frontier Services, which conducts border patrols in this remote area. “There have been several incidents in the area as a result of mines or UXO explosions,” says David Towndrow of NAMSA. As the UXOs become increasingly unstable over time, and ultimately more difficult to recover, they present a serious humanitarian, socio-economic and environmental threat to the local population.
“This project will provide real benefits for the people living in the area both in terms of the removal of the hazards from unexploded UXO and mines and in terms of local employment,” explains Sabina Sarkarova, Senior Officer for the ANAMA Planning and Development Department.
For the Azerbaijan government, the primary focus of cleaning the land contaminated with UXOs is to make the area safer for local farmers and the State Frontier Service border patrols. “This project serves an important purpose. They’re NATO’s efforts to contribute to humanitarian endeavours in this country,” says Mr. Garza.
But beyond ensuring the safety of the local population, clearing the UXOs would also allow the local authorities to move forward with agricultural development plans for the area, in addition to permitting access to nationally important archaeological and historic sites.
Security and decreasing the risk of a terrorist threat are also top priorities. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipelines pass just south of Jeyranchel area. By clearing the unguarded explosives near these strategically important international pipelines, the project will also help increase the security of Azerbaijan.
The estimated cost of this project is just over €3 million. As Lead Nation for the Trust Fund project, the United States will contribute €270 000 each year for two years, with the Government of Azerbaijan contributing half of the total project cost. The remainder will come from voluntary contributions made by NATO and non-NATO nations.
The focus will be on clearing a 19 square kilometre section in the western part of the former Soviet Army training area over a 28-month period. Much like the previous Trust Fund project in Saloglu, NAMSA is directing the project, with ANAMA working on the ground as the executing agency.
Once a 30-person explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team is trained and equipped, a seven square kilometre area will be cleared of UXOs during the first 14 months. The second 14 months will focus on clearing the remaining 12 square kilometre area.
This Trust Fund project not only represents concrete cooperation between NATO and Azerbaijan, but also highlights a deepening relationship between the United States and a valuable partner.
“It represents deeper NATO-Azerbaijan engagement,” says Mr. Garza. However, the project also symbolises a bilateral commitment to the developing relationship between Azerbaijan and the United States. “The relationship with Azerbaijan has grown tremendously over the last five to ten years, even more so in the last two years. This project is another plank in our ladder of engagement,” he adds.