Survey and Ordnance Disposal in the Polisario-controlled Areas of the Western Sahara

by Zlatko Gegic and Artyom Harutyunyan [ Landmine Action ]

Due to a 15-year war, Western Sahara has a number of unmarked territories full of explosive remnants of war.1 Landmine Action, a nongovernmental organisation from the United Kingdom, has taken several measures to improve the situation in Western Sahara. In addition to surveying, marking and reporting, one of LMA's chief intentions is to train members of the local population in an explosive-ordnance-disposal programme.

Introduction

Western Sahara is a territory located in northwest Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria in the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. It is one of the most sparsely populated territories in the world, mainly consisting of desert flatlands.1

After Spain left Western Sahara in 1975 as a part of a decolonization plan, the territory became disputed between the Frente Polisario, a nationalist movement for independence, and the Kingdom of Morocco. The conflict ended with the United Nations-sponsored cease-fire agreement in 1991. Since then, most of the territory has been controlled by Morocco, with the remainder under control of the government of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic.2

Project Background

This 16-year-long military conflict left Western Sahara littered with mines and explosive remnants of war. The densest concentration of mines and ERW is found to the east of the berm, the 2,400-kilometre (1,491-mile) earthwork fortification that runs the length of Western Sahara and divides the Moroccan and the Polisario-controlled zones. The berm is part of a series of walls, ditches and minefields constructed by Moroccan forces between 1981 and 1987.

Mines and ERW are found near settlements throughout areas now under Polisario control that were previously captured and temporarily occupied by Moroccan forces. Mines and ERW are also found at ambush sites in the vicinity of former Moroccan military supply routes as well as transit routes and water holes used by the Polisario.

Figure 1
Map of UXO and MF in Northern Sector of Polisario-Controlled Zone. All Graphics/Photos Courtesy of Landmine Action

ERW identified during the course of the preliminary survey conducted in October 2005 and February/March 2006 by Landmine Action included mostly United States- and French-manufactured ammunition, due to their strong military support of Morocco. Countries such as China, the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia supplied some ammunition for the conflict—if not directly, then through third-party countries. The anti-personnel and anti-vehicle mines identified are primarily of European origin, namely Belgian, French, Italian, Romanian, Soviet and Yugoslavian.

The ERW pose a risk to local civilians, particularly nomadic populations, as well as United Nations and NGO personnel traversing the the Polisario-controlled zone. They would also impede a repatriation of Saharawi refugees from the five camps in southwestern Algeria in the event of a political settlement is reached on Western Sahara's sovereignty issue.

Objectives

In October 2006, Landmine Action, a U.K.-based NGO, began conducting a survey of the threat mines and ERW posed in the northern sector of the Polisario-controlled zone. One of the objectives for Landmine Action is to analyse the survey data to assess and prioritise land in terms of needs and feasibility of the marking, clearance, removing and destruction of ERW and mines. Since the start of 2007, Landmine Action has been carrying out the marking, clearing, removing and destroying of the ERW. The organisation's project offers a long-term solution to the problem through the establishment of a local demining and explosive-ordnance-disposal capacity.

The strategy and structure of the survey are in accordance with the recommendations of a United Nations Mine Action Service assessment undertaken in November 2005. Landmine Action is committed to operating according to the International Mine Action Standards3 and recording its findings and activities in the Information Management System for Mine Action. Landmine Action's performance relies on close cooperation with the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in the Western Sahara (MINURSO) and the Polisario Ministry of Defence. Its strategy is to reduce the level of involvement by expatriate staff while developing the competencies of the national staff until it becomes a Saharawi-led project and constitutes a professional and self-sustaining local NGO capable of maintaining constructive relations with both MINURSO and the Polisario.

Image 1 Unexploded clusters M42 near main road.

Training and Capacity Building

In August 2006, Landmine Action established an operations base in Tifariti. It began training 10 demobilised military engineers in general survey, first aid and trauma management, and battle area clearance, with emphasis on visual search methods. The subsurface training was conducted in April 2007 after the large loop detectors were received. This metal detector technology, produced by German firm Ebinger, searches under ground for large metal objects such as cluster bombs and anti-tank mines.

An EOD IMAS level-three training course was presented in March and April 2007. Both of Landmine Action's BAC/EOD teams experienced the theoretical and practical training under the supervision of an international EOD instructor and Technical Advisor. At the end of the EOD training, Landmine Action held a graduation ceremony with Saharawi president Mohamed Abdelaziz, the MINURSO Force Commander Kurt Mosgaard, representatives from national and international NGOs, and civil society, as well as journalists from various countries in attendance.

Summary of the Programme's Field Results as of 30 June 2007

From the time a fully operational programme was established (October 2006) until July 2007, the following results were achieved:

Fundraising and Donors

Landmine Action started preliminary survey work in the northern sector in October 2005 with a grant from the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund. In November 2005, the Polisario signed the Deed of Commitment4 to the 1997 Ottawa Treaty to Ban Landmines, obliging it to ban the use of anti-personnel mines and destroy its current stockpiles. Landmine Action provided technical assistance to the Polisario in its destruction of an initial stockpile of APMs in February 2006 in a significant first step toward meeting those obligations.

Seizing the opportunity presented by the Polisario's initiative in signing the Deed of Commitment, Landmine Action successfully applied for further funding from the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and new funding from UNMAS and the Federal Republic of Germany to initiate a general survey of minefields and other hazardous areas. It also received a donation from the Norwegian Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, securing funding for two survey/BAC/EOD teams for 2007.

Planned Activities for 2007 and 2008

Landmine Action's objectives for the upcoming year include the following:

Conclusion

Western Sahara can be free from mines and ERW only with the support of the international community and only after complete settlement of conflict; however, it is not good to sit on one's hands and wait for political settlement while mines, unexploded ordnance and cluster munitions are still taking lives. At the time of this writing, the last victim in the Polisario-controlled zone was a 5-year-old child, killed by BLU 63 cluster submunition5 in February 2007. We hope that humanitarian demining will help civilians and make this accident the last one. Bullet

The authors would like to express their gratitude to Mikaela Wallinder, Desk Officer of Landmine ActionUK and Ahmed Sidi Ali, Deputy Programme Manager of Landmine ActionWS. Without their help, support and information, this article wouldn't exist.

Biography

HeadshotZlatko Gegic, a Bosnian national, has been involved in humanitarian mine action since 1996. He has worked for several international organisations in Bosnia, Kosovo, South Sudan and Western Sahara. Currently, Zlatko is managing a mine action programme in Burundi for the Fondation Suisse de Deminage (FSD).




HeadshotArtyom Harutyunyan currently works for Landmine Action as a Technical Adviser in Western Sahara. He joined The HALO Trust in 2000 as an EOD/BAC Team Supervisor  Nagorno-Karabakh. From 2002 to 2006 he trained and worked in Mozambique as a Mine Detection Dogs Programme Officer. He was also a Technical Survey Specialist for United Nations Development Programme's Armenia Humanitarian Demining Center.

Endnotes

  1. "Western Sahara," Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_Sahara. Accessed 19 November 2007.
  2. Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic is a government in exile formed by the Polisario.
  3. United Nations Mine Action Service (2003), International Mine Action Standards, New York: UNMAS. The IMAS can be found online at http://www.mineactionstandards.org/imas.htm. Accessed 19 November 2007.
  4. While only governments can sign the Convention, non-state actors can sign the Deed of Commitment for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action through an organization called Geneva Call. Geneva Call engages NSAs to respect and adhere to humanitarian norms, starting with the anti-personnel mine ban. For more information, see http://www.genevacall.org/home.htm.
  5. For more information each of these munitions, see the Mine Action Information Center's "Munitions Reference." Available at http://www.jmu.edu/cisr/_pages/research/munitions.shtml. Accessed 19 November 2007.

Contact Information

Artyom Harutyunyan
Technical Adviser
Landmine Action in Western Sahara
2nd Floor, 89 Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP
Tel: +88 21 652 016 687
E-mail: aharutyunyan@landmineaction.org
Web site: http://www.landmineaction.org

Zlatko Gegic
Former Programme Manager
Landmine Action in Western Sahara
Mobile: +257 77 750 111
E-mail: gegic@fsd.ch or zlatkogegic@yahoo.com
Web site: http://www.landmineaction.org