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British Group To Expand Nagorno-Karabakh Demining

STEPANAKERT -- A British humanitarian organization says it has cleared land mines and unexploded ordnance from the bulk of Nagorno-Karabakh's war-affected territory and will soon begin demining Armenian-controlled areas outside the disputed region, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports.

Representatives of the HALO Trust made the announcement on June 7 as they marked the 10th anniversary of HALO's permanent presence in Karabakh at a ceremony attended by the Karabakh Armenian leadership.

Karabakh President Bako Sahakian praised the group's decade-long demining efforts in his unrecognized republic that have been financed by the U.S. government and nongovernmental Western charities.

"We regard saved lives as the biggest result and value of the work done by them," he said in a speech at the ceremony held in Khachen, a village in eastern Karabakh.

The HALO Trust says that since 2000 it has destroyed over 50,000 land mines, cluster munitions, and other items of unexploded ordnance over 125 square kilometers of land.

According to its regional director, Andrew Moore, that means more than 80 percent of Karabakh territory mined by Armenian and Azerbaijani forces during the 1991-94 hostilities is now considered safe.

Aknaghbyur, a village in southern Karabakh, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of HALO's demining efforts.

"Six hundred hectares of our agricultural land have been cleared," Artur Babayan, the village mayor attending the ceremony, told RFE/RL.

The disputed region within Azerbaijan and much of the adjoining territory has been under the control of ethnic Armenians since the 1994 cease-fire.

Karabakh has continued to regularly report civilian casualties from land mines and unexploded ordnance. According to government data, 74 local residents have been killed and 254 others wounded in landmine explosions over the past decade.

Moore said that HALO, which operates in nine countries and has nearly 8,000 mine-clearers, now plans to expand its operations into some of the Azerbaijani districts around Karabakh that were fully or partly occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces during the war.

He said that work will be financed by a fresh grant from the Julia Burke Foundation, a California-based charity that has supported HALO's activities in Karabakh since 2007.

"I hope very much that Azerbaijan will not try to influence other potential donors willing to support demining efforts in Nagorno-Karabakh," said Caroline Cox, a pro-Armenian member of the British House of Lords who has frequently visited Karabakh since the early 1990s. She argued those efforts have a "humanitarian, rather than political" character.

Azerbaijan has repeatedly criticized HALO for engaging in land-mine clearance in Karabakh without its permission.