Richard Williams describes how a NATO-led team is helping Albania deal with unexploded munitions and explosives, which have killed scores of people.
Time bombs: An area the size of 360 football pitches was contaminated with unexploded ordnance when a NATO-led team arrived in Albania. (Richard Williams photo - 46Kb)
In the wake of the anarchy which engulfed Albania in March 1997, looters seized several hundred thousand weapons and some 20 000 tonnes of ammunition and caused explosions in many storage depots across the country. Since 1998, many of the weapons have been recovered but the sudden appearance of so much unexploded ammunition exacerbated what was already a serious problem of out-of-date ordnance dating back to Albanias years of international isolation. In the absence of both the means and the technical expertise to deal with this crisis, Albania turned to NATO and its Partnership for Peace programme for help.
While the scale and nature of the problem confronting Albania in 1997 was extremely serious, munitions storage and disposal problems are common to many former Eastern-bloc countries. As a result, the eventual solution, which involved training Albanian officers and the establishment of an Albanian agency to dispose of explosive ordnance, could serve as a model for other nations with large stockpiles of ageing ammunition left over from the Cold War.
A NATO-led team with ammunition specialists from both NATO and Partner countries arrived in Albania in late 1997 to assess the scale of the problem. At the time, more than 180 hectares of land, an area the size of about 360 football pitches, was contaminated with unexploded ordnance throughout the country. Moreover, initial Albanian attempts to clear the worst so-called hot spots had led to more than 50 casualties. Following an initial survey, the team decided to focus on training Albanians in ammunition management and explosive ordnance disposal procedures consistent with those used by NATO member states.
Between October and December 1998, a team of trainers from both NATO and Partner nations ran intensive, hands-on courses for selected Albanian junior officers. The courses, which included the use of live explosives, aimed to provide students with the technical skills and fundamental training capability to train others to help clear the contaminated areas and properly account for and secure stored ammunition. At the same time, as part of a wider restructuring of the Albanian Armed Forces, obsolete, age-deteriorated, damaged and excess ammunition was to be identified for a disposal programme, so that the ammunition stockpile could be reduced and consolidated from some 140 storage depots to 60.
After the first generation of Albanian officers completed their training in ammunition management and explosive ordnance disposal, an Albanian Explosive Ordnance Disposal Organisation was created, headed by the top graduate of the NATO-run programme. The newly qualified ammunition experts began clearing unexploded ordnance at the first site, at Palikesht, some 100 kilometres south of the capital, Tirana. As a result of the Kosovo conflict, however, the fledgling organisation was obliged to take on emergency work. It cleared unexploded ordnance from a site selected for a refugee camp at Shkodra, dealt with large numbers of unexploded bomblets from Serb-fired rockets in the north of the country, and surveyed and marked Serb-planted minefields along the border between Kosovo and Albania. The Albanian defence ministry also launched an extensive awareness-raising campaign among refugees and Albanians living in the north of the country as to the dangers of landmines and unexploded munitions.
With NATO assistance, an Albanian Mines Action Committee and Albanian Mines Action Executive have been formed to carry forward the preliminary surveying, marking and minefield recording efforts. Their principal objectives, however, are to ensure that Albania has institutions able to provide donors initial information about contaminated areas and help coordinate demining in the longer term.
Meanwhile, the Palikesht site was cleared of unexploded ordnance in October 1999 and to date some 260 tonnes of ammunition have been disposed of without casualty, freeing up 45 hectares of land for productive use. Work has also been completed at the nearby site of Mbreshtan, where the teams were faced with the added technical challenge of gaining access to unstable rocket-propelled grenade warheads under the rubble of collapsed storage buildings.
Albania recently ratified the Ottawa Convention on the prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and their destruction, which came into force in February 1999. This obliges the country to dispose of its entire stockpile of an estimated 1.6 million anti-personnel mines within four years. A pilot reverse engineering project is being drawn up with the help of the NATO team of experts, which would aim at dismantling landmines to separate and destroy the dangerous components and recover the rest as recyclable scrap. But given the quantities involved, Albania will need more international assistance and funds to complete the disposal of its stockpile.
Another problem that emerged during the initial survey was that of deteriorating propellants, which cause instability and create the potential for spontaneous explosions in Albanian ammunition storage facilities. Out of approximately 125 000 tonnes of ammunition, 90 per cent are more than 30 years old. Over 30 000 tonnes of damaged, obsolete, and excess ammunition, including 2 230 tonnes of anti-personnel mines have been identified for high priority disposal. The imminent danger presented by such huge quantities of potentially unstable ammunition prompted NATO to propose a study to look into the feasibility of constructing a purpose-built ammunition demilitarisation facility in Albania. This project, which is still pending and would require international financial assistance, could potentially bring benefits for other nations in southeastern Europe facing similar problems.
The Albanian Armed Forces urgently need to improve management of their ammunition stockpile to overcome serious problems with safety, security and accountability. In the wake of the 1997 anarchy, many of the Armed Forces accounting documents were destroyed. The NATO team has therefore worked closely with Albanian ammunition-storage specialists to conduct a munitions census, which was completed in mid-2000. This information will allow plans to be finalised for the large-scale reduction of ammunition stocks and consolidation of their storage sites, some of which lie dangerously close to civilian-inhabited areas.
Many challenges lie ahead for Albania as it seeks to get to grips with these munitions management and disposal issues through its demilitarisation programme. The scale of the task means that it would take the Albanian Armed Forces more than 30 years to complete, in the total absence of foreign aid. As a result, international financial assistance will be needed. Thanks to the Partnership for Peace programme and the unique and positive collaboration that was built up between the NATO team and the Albanian specialists, Albania is moving towards self-sufficiency in munitions management.