Clearing cold war remnants in Azerbaijan

NATO helps make former military base safe for civilians

  • 08 Mar. 2010 -
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  • Last updated: 17 Mar. 2010 11:48

Grazing sheep near Saloglu, in the north-eastern corner of Azerbaijan, used to be a dangerous task. In an area of more than five square kilometres, hundreds of thousands of pieces of explosive material lay hidden from view at various depths below the rolling, shrub-covered land. Now thanks to a NATO Trust Fund project, a large part of the area has been cleared, and one day soon, the entire former military base will be safe for the local population.

A dangerous task

Saloglu, with its 138 storehouses, was one of around 35 heavily armed military depots in Azerbaijan during Soviet times, all of which were blown up when the Soviet Army withdrew in 1991. The explosion at Saloglu contaminated the area with dangerous debris known in military terms as unexploded ordinance (UXO). Before NATO became involved in 2003, UXO-related accidents at Saloglu injured hundreds of civilians, killing at least 32 people, 11 of whom were children.

People from neighbouring villages tried to remove scrap metal, mostly copper,” says Dr Bulent Tudes, NAMSA General Services Program Manager at the NATO Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA). “Our project has stopped all such unfortunate events and saved many lives in the region.”

Estimating the size of the clearance job was difficult because much of the UXO was hidden beneath the top soil, covered with low shrubs. The concentration of UXO was highest near where the barrack’s buildings once stood. Some 560 hectares were contaminated, says Dr Tudes – on the surface and up to four or five metres underground.

The job proved even more delicate given the large amount of scrap metal littering the area,” says Planning and Development Manager Nigar Azimova from the Azerbaijan National Agency for Mine Action (ANAMA). ANAMA, co-founded by the Government of Azerbaijan and the United Nations Development Programme, is contracted through the Trust Fund project to carry out the clearance process.

The solution

After being approached by the Azerbaijani authorities, NAMSA presented a proposal for clearing Saloglu’s UXO to Turkey, the project’s lead nation, in 2003. The plan included the destruction of more than 2 000 tonnes of UXO that were stockpiled at the nearby village of Poylu and city of Agstafa. Started in November 2005, the project is expected to finish in early 2011, at which time the land will be given over for public use.

Humanitarian and other considerations, along with the historic, brotherly and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, have been the main drivers behind Turkey's decision to lead the Saloğlu Project.

According to the Turkish Delegation to NATO, the right action, coupled with sustainable policies, can help transform once dangerous and idle zones into productive areas for agriculture and animal husbandry. The project can thereby contribute not only to the security of the country, but also to its economy.

Clearing UXO contaminated areas requires searching and identifying UXO, assessing the hazard, and then either destroying it in place by detonation or transporting it to a demolition area to conduct a larger-scale detonation. Some of the resulting scrap metal is then transported to a smelter for recycling.

So far, the project has cleared 565 hectares of top-surface and 122 hectares of subsurface land. More than 550 000 pieces of UXO have been rendered safe.

Taking on new projects

Projects such as the one in Saloglu are instrumental in increasing local capacity and ownership. In June, the demining agency began a new project in Guzdek, not far from Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. The former military ammunition depots at Guzdek supplied ammunition to four Soviet commands, and like Saloglu, it was blown up when the army left. The resulting UXO has so far caused 10 accidents, killing two people.

The experience ANAMA has gained at Saloglu should prove invaluable. “It led us to develop new procedures for subsurface UXO clearance and bulk demolitions,” says Nigar Azimova, “and it should help ensure our success in taking on any other UXO tasks in Azerbaijan.”

Azerbaijan and NATO

Azerbaijan began formal relations with NATO in 1992, when it joined the newly created North Atlantic Cooperation Council, now called the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. In 1994, it joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP), a programme aimed at increasing security and defence cooperation between NATO and individual Partner countries.

The Trust Fund project to clear UXO in Saloglu was made possible with the support and funding of Turkey, the project’s lead nation, and the financial contributions of Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, the United States, Australia, Japan and the United Nations Development Programme.

NATO Trust Fund projects enable Allied and Partner countries to work together in addressing dangerous legacies the Cold War left behind, such as UXOs, deteriorating rocket fuel, and aging arms and ammunition stockpiles.