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President Aliyev says demining of liberated lands priority

President Ilham Aliyev

President Ilham Aliyev has described the mine clearance operations on Azerbaijani territories recently liberated from Armenian occupation as one of the priority tasks before the country.

He made the remarks in a video format meeting with newly-appointed Chairman of the Board of the Azerbaijani Mine Action Agency Vugar Suleymanov on February 4.

“The demining of liberated lands is a priority task. This should be done in such a way that no accidents occur after the work is completed,” Aliyev said addressing Suleymanov.

The president said that although he understands the IDPs’ desire to return to their homes, they must withhold from visiting liberated lands without permission and illegally.

“Unfortunately, accidents have been taking place in the liberated lands in the past few days and in the immediate aftermath of the war. I want to appeal to the citizens of Azerbaijan and ask them not to travel to the liberated lands without permission and illegally. On the one hand, I can understand these steps of the people, they have longed for the homeland for many years and every former IDP wants to return to his homeland, to the native village, but I ask them to wait a little. Let them wait for the demining work to be completed. Because this is a great danger, a great danger to both pedestrians and cars. Since the war ended, several such accidents have occurred, killing and injuring people,” he said.

The head of state urged the organization to strictly control checkpoints to stop illegal and unauthorized travels to the liberated lands.

“These tragedies show again that after the occupation the enemy not only destroyed all our buildings and historical sites but also planted booby traps everywhere. It has mined not only areas close to the line of contact, but also cities, roads, important strategic heights, and we do not have maps of these minefields. Therefore, our sappers have a huge task. They must carry out this task in such a way that no mines are left in the liberated lands,” Aliyev stressed.

He noted that there can be no talk of development before the demining ends and urged acceleration in the process.

“Even now we can do the work on the construction of roads and railways only after the sappers have cleared those areas of mines. This is why any activity there, any development depends on demining. Therefore, we must speed up a little. At the same time, demining must be carried out in such a way that, I repeat, there is no danger after the completion of that work.”

Tasks before Mine Action Agency

President Aliyev briefed Suleymanov about the agency’s tasks ahead.

“First of all, you need to pay attention to the proper organization of work. Organizational work must be done properly. The new agency is a state agency. Of course, first of all, professional staff should be selected and involved in the work of the agency. Of course, the personnel of the former ANAMA organization should be used. At the same time, the composition of the agency should be determined because the agency must have a larger workforce to build and carry out work on the liberated lands quickly and efficiently, of course,” he underlined.

Aliyev described the acquisition of new equipment as one of the top priorities among the tasks.

“Technological development in this area has become more pronounced in recent years. There is machinery, mechanisms and equipment now that can speed up the work and allow you the opportunity to do it with quality. Therefore, the most state-of-the-art equipment of the world’s leading manufacturers must be brought to our country. The quality and speed of work will depend on that. Our former IDPs have longed for their homeland for 30 years. Therefore, demining should be carried out in such a way that we can start the restoration work in a short time, so that citizens can return to their lands after the completion of construction work,” he said.

Focusing on the sequence of our work on liberated territories, Aliyev said that the primary task is to clear mines, then to assess damages and later start restoration work. He stressed that experienced international experts need to be involved in demining operations.

“In addition to mines, there is ample unexploded ordnance in the liberated lands, which is natural. Because the fighting during the war led to an abundance of unexploded ordnance in the liberated lands. Therefore, clearing the area of these ammunitions is a difficult task. You need to attract experienced international experts in this field, to conduct training courses for employees both within the country and short-term courses abroad so that our specialists, sappers can protect themselves and, at the same time, apply the best practices here.”

The president said that Azerbaijan could effectively use satellite imagery as this will provide additional opportunities during the post-war reconstruction.

“We managed to determine the amount of forests cut down by the Armenians from satellites, and we are now verifying that on the ground. A total of 54,000 hectares of our forests have been cut down, looted and sold by the Armenian leadership. Satellite imagery also detects areas more contaminated with mines. Therefore, we must use these opportunities effectively,” he said.

Aliyev noted that the agency will have to take over most of the work in the demining sphere.

“After the war ended, I ordered the Defence Ministry to set up additional sapper battalions, and they have been created. I am regularly updated about the demining work on the liberated lands, and so far about 80-90 percent of the work has been done by the Defence Ministry sappers. From now on, however, the agency you lead will have to take over most of the work. Of course, the Defence Ministry sappers will continue to do their work because the scope of work is quite large. However, the Mine Action Agency must be able to make a significant contribution to our overall work,” he said.

The head of state stressed that the technical capacity of the previous agency was very poor and the number of personnel was low.

“If we had left this task to them, no-one knows how many years it would take. We don’t have time. We must return the former IDPs to their native lands as soon as possible,” Aliyev said.

The president focused on acts of vandalism committed by Armenians while leaving Kalbajar and Lachin regions.

“All our infrastructure and buildings have been destroyed. Therefore, everyone must understand the scale of this work, and Azerbaijan has started this restoration work on its own. We started it without waiting for help from anyone, and everything is going according to plan. Therefore, you must work closely with the Defence Ministry, schedule the work to be done together with them, which areas need to be cleared first. In other words, there is a methodology, there is an international methodology, there are satellite images,” Aliyev said.

National demining standards

Aliyev added that Azerbaijan should develop its own national standards in demining.

“We must develop national standards for demining operations in Azerbaijan. In other words, there should be standards of Azerbaijan. Of course, it is also necessary to look at international practices. I think that the number of booby traps in our liberated territories is perhaps unprecedented in the world. The clearing work must be done in sequence, of course. Here, too, priorities must be set correctly. You must agree on these priorities with the Task Force because these priorities must be consistent with our restoration work,” he said.

The president added that private foreign and local companies could be involved in defining mined areas through satellite imagery.

“As you know, Armenia has not provided us with maps of the mined areas, so satellite imagery can play an important role here. At the same time, I think we need to involve private companies in this work. I have already given instructions and negotiations are currently underway with foreign companies. I think that involving them will be an important step to facilitate our work. I also believe that local companies could be established in parallel with that. Because we have never had such an experience. But given the volume of work, I think that private companies can be created, the Azerbaijani business community can have a say here, and thus we can do it in a shorter time. Of course, these private companies must be provided with appropriate equipment. At the same time, the Mine Action Agency must issue certificates to them and they must undergo accreditation. Joint ventures with foreign companies can also be established. Therefore, as the head of the agency, you should pay attention to this work.”

The head of state reiterated that after demining operations first cities will be rebuilt and “smart village” pilot project will be launched soon.

“Therefore, all the cities must be cleared of mines, first of all. At the same time, restoration work will begin in some villages in the near future, and I have already said that. We are now developing a ‘smart village’ concept. This concept is almost ready. I have been updated of it and approved it. The first pilot project ‘smart village’ will be implemented. Those places must be identified correctly. Farmlands and roads leading to them must be cleared. This is one of the priorities,” he said.

Speaking about the brutal exploitation of Azerbaijani territories, the president said that Armenia illegally used 90,000 hectares of land under grain alone and enriched itself. He noted that in order not to waste any time, all the resources had already been mobilized on his instructions immediately after the war ended.

“I can say that the autumn sowing has been carried out. Notice that the war ended on 10 November and we started sowing in December. I am informed on a daily basis that the autumn sowing has already been carried out on 7,000 hectares. So this still is also evidence of our strength. It shows that we do not want to wait a minute or a day.”

The president said that identifying the areas for the spring sowing campaign is now underway. Lands have been identified and the roads leading to these areas must be among the priorities.

“Manufacturers in developed countries are now using robots, so we must use them too. In short, state-of-the-art technologies and the latest equipment must be brought to Azerbaijan. We must create a strong institution. First of all, its main task should be to clear the area of mines,” he added.

Strategy for future activities

Aliyev noted that after completing all the work in the country, the State Mine Action Agency could use its experience to operate in foreign countries and work as a contractor.

“The services of our agency can also be used by international organizations. This is how you should build your strategy. In other words, it should be a long-term strategy for the future activities of the agency. However, the short- and medium-term strategy is to clear the land of mines so that rehabilitation can begin and citizens can return to their homeland as soon as possible,” Aliyev stressed.

In late January, two Azerbaijanis were wounded in Tartar and Aghdam regions. One civilian was killed and two were wounded in Fuzuli region on February 2.

On December 22, 2020, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry said that 6 civilians and 6 military servicemen were killed and 7 civilians and 14 military servicemen were injured in landmine blasts after the war ended on November 10, 2020.

Aliyev signed a decree on February 2 on ensuring the activity of the Mine Clearance Agency of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Under the decree, the charter of the Mine Clearance Agency was approved.

On February 3, Aliyev announced that mine clearance in the liberated lands would be the first step in the process to return IDPs to their homes.

The president said that mine clearance was a big process as Armenians refuse to give Azerbaijan maps of minefields. “That is why explosions are frequent now. We are now reshaping the Mine Action Agency, and it will be more efficient now. But it will take some time. Of course, mine clearance work must be completed.”

He stressed that mine clearance process will be followed by assessment of damage and restoration work in the liberated lands.

By Vafa Ismayilova

About Fidan Abdullayeva