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French deminers go for clean sweep at Angkor complex

French deminers go for clean sweep at Angkor complex

SIEM REAP - Demining is a crucial part of the international campaign to restore

the Angkor monuments and a French NGO is leading the effort to make the area

safe for development.

COFRAS (Compagnie Fran-caise d'Assistance

Specialisee) group has 64 UNTAC-trained Cambodian deminers clearing mines in

Krol Ko temple, 16 km from Siem Reap town. Their work on the three hectare site

is supervised by two French experts and a doctor.

"Our task is to clear

mines in tourist, agriculture and development zones in areas related to the

Angkor complex," said COFRAS official Gerard Dufrechou, a commander of the

demining team.

Krol Ko is on the route of the big circle, north of Angkor

Thom. It sinks in the middle of thick bush, its walls eradicated or showing

evidence of bullets and shrapnel. A trail of trenches and mines recently removed

were behind the temple's northern wall facing a stream from where enemy troops

was expected.

The temple has a history of military involvement. Siem Reap

residents and deminers at the site said it was used as a military position by

Lon Nol, the Khmer Rouge and by Vietnamese troops during the civil

war.

COFRAS is seeking to end that by making the area safe for tourists

but it is a tense job requiring strict discipline. Dufrechou said any misconduct

or disrespect for safety procedures would affect the entire mine-clearing

operation and deminers would lose their jobs.

"When we enter mine fields

we don't know what we will find. It is a very dangerous job," he said. "You must

obey 'safety first'." The strict rules apply to everyone and he warned the Post

about visiting the site without authorization.

"Demining is not a

business. We are not gun or grenade dealers but we are professionals," he said

before allowing the Post to see a demonstration of mine-clearance.

Dufrechou was proud that his team had suffered no injuries.

"Statistically, there must be at least one casualty but I hope it will last like

this," he said.

Deminers receive $100 a month and $60 for food. They are

covered by social welfare benefits, such as free medicine, social security and a

payment of $3,000 if they die on the job. They also have four-weeks paid holiday

a year.

At the site, their search for explosive items proceeds strictly

in every square inch and each movement is determined by a red rope which marks

the line between searched and unsearched areas.

The task is complicated

by irregularities between the amount of mines supposed to be planted at sites

and the actual amount found, said Col. Mean Sarun, a liaison officer assigned to

the team by the government.

"In one site, reports said there were more

than a thousand mines but we found around 200," he said.

Team supervisor

Sylvain Petitpas said only five mines, including an anti-tank one, had been

found since demining at Krol Ko was launched on Jan. 4.

However, at each

site where an operation had been completed was considered free of mines. "We are

100 percent sure that this site will be clear when we finish," he

said.

Petitpas said French demin-ing procedures were the best in the

world. French experts supervised the safe removal of 6,500 of the 11,000 mines

recovered by Cambodian deminers working for UNTAC, he said.

But the team

looks overseas for its equipment, using Schibbel metal-detectors which are made

in Austria. They can detect up to 50cm below the ground and can also detect

metal in water.

The metal-detectors are often the deminers' only

protection as they fan out in small groups keeping well away from each other in

case one of them accidentally sets off a mine. Working space of each small group

spans a 50 m distance for fragmentation mines and 25 m for anti-personnel

mines.

Field doctor Bertrand Desplats said: "We are very strict about

'safety first', especially with fragmentation mines. They are difficult and

deadly dangerous because of the many tricks in planting them."

"Deminers

must imagine why mines were laid in this or that way. They must follow the

string connecting the pin to the tree until they spot the mine. Accident happens

when deminers unconsciously disrupt the string," he explained.

He said

the COFRAS mission began last August and was due to end this February but a

further six month contract had been approved by the French government, funded by

the European Community.

COFRAS works within the framework of the

International Coordinating Committee set up to administer the Angkor site. The

committee comprises the Cambodian government and 20 foreign nations.

Its

first meeting last December was co-chaired by the French and Japanese

ambassadors in Phnom Penh with UNESCO as secretariat. Delegates agreed on the

need to rehabilitate the site and develop tourism.

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