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Hunting landmines by the leash and the chain

Hunting landmines by the leash and the chain

THE RA-140 DS MINE CLEARER

THE RA-140 DS revved up. Its rear-mounted drum, studded with lengths of chain, began to turn. The chains soon flailed in a whirling, clanking roar that instantly raised a huge cloud of red dust.

The monster inched backwards, pounding the bejesus out of the hard laterite soil. Within seconds the red dust cloud stetched for 100 yards.

Built by Patria Vehicles, the armor-plated truck pummels the ground in a 3m-wide swath, detonating any landmines in its path. It can demine up to 3,000 square meters per hour, 15,000 in a five-hour workday - equal to what 450 CMAC deminers can handle in eight hours.

The behemoth vehicle can speed up to 70kph on the highway, cross streams 80cm deep, follow varying terrain with automatic ride-height control, and has been adapted for the Cambodian tropics by a coat of white paint, an air-conditioned cab and hydraulic cooling capacity. Cost: $500,000.

The demonstration was held for Ieng Mouly, Information Minister and Chairman of the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC), who led a convoy of civil and military officials to Kampot on April 27 to inspect the two giant mine-clearing machines that have been donated to CMAC by Finland.

"We looking for a methodology for faster and better demining operations," commented Ieng Mouly. "We need land that is safe for the resettlement of people. This will accelerate the process."

Ieng Mouly gamely clambered into the cab after the demo to discover two sets of steering wheels: forward for road transport, backwards for rolling over minefields.

The idea is that the flail machine can define the boundaries of suspected minefields, thus freeing manual deminers to hone in on areas that are truly infested. One CMAC wag calls this "gardening by stealth".

They are designed primarily for anti-personnel mines, 95% of Cambodia's suspected total. "What happens if you hit an anti-tank mine?" asked Ieng Mouly.

"That will damage the chains," replied Lt Col Simo Pajulahti of the Finnish Defense Force Engineers. "But we have 800 chains, a year's supply. They're replaced every 150 hours."

Soon the six-man Finnish military unit will be conducting field trials of the two flail machines. A joint international team will rate the vehicle's performance over local terrain.

A week later, a trio of journalists were taken to the CMAC Training Center in Kampong Chhnang to view a more low-tech approach to demining: dogs. This show is run by the Swedes.

Air Force Capt Connie Akerblom is the leader of the three-man technical adviser team. "Swedish demining dogs have been used for 12 years now, in Sinai, Bosnia, Angola and Mozambique," he observed.

"Here in Cambodia we plan to use the dogs in conjunction with the flailing machines to reduce the area we have to demine manually. Spots where the flails can't reach, dogs can."

In 1996, the Swedish team selected 12 Khmer dogs for an eight-month training course in Sweden.

"We arrived in Stockholm two days before Christmas and were worried about the effect of the cold on the dogs," Akerblom recalled. "But the dogs loved it, playing in the snow... The problem was coming back here to the heat. It took them two months to adjust, the same as for Swedish dogs."

SWEDISH SNIFFER

German shepherds, border collies, labradors and forester bird dogs make up the Swedish half of the canine contingent. Twenty-four dogs are paired with Khmer handlers.

The CMAC dog handlers gave an exhibition of their craft. A new recruit, a Khmer puppy, was taught to fetch a hidden toy, contaminated with the smell of TNT, and bring it back to his handler. A German shepherd sniffed out buried TNT and marked the spot by laying down before it. A border collie performed the same operation along a 10m-long rope that is shifted to cover a suspect area in a grid formation.

"At first, I was worried about the Cambodian attitude toward dogs," admits Akerblom. "But I needn't have. A great deal of love and trust has been built up between handlers and their dogs. They realize these dogs are highly intelligent, highly trained, and valuable: $20,000 after the training course. The dogs are in kennels during the afternoon break, but at night they sleep in the barracks with their handlers."

Costs for the first three years of the project are budgeted at $1.7 million. Following graduation at the end of May, teams of 16 - six dogs and handlers, plus deminers, markers, surveyers - will train together until late July when they will begin field operations in Kampong Thom.

By September, three teams will be at work in the priority rice fields of Battambang and Siem Reap.

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