Mineseeker flights begin officials race to finish work before funding runs out

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Podujeva, Oct. 6 (KosovaLive) Authorities hope to speed up the process of clearing unexploded Serb land mines and NATO cluster bombs with the aid of a new blimp, the “Mineseeker,” which will begin operations Monday.

The 165-foot-long white blimp will pass over fields and forests at an altitude of 500 feet. High-resolution thermal imaging cameras will videotape the landscape below, pinpointing the exact location of unexploded bombs.

“The signature of a cluster bomb is very obvious from the air, especially this time of year when the vegetation is flattening off,” said John Flanagan, manager of the Mine Action Coordination Center. “You can see very distinctive holes, and once you see those, you can clear the area very, very quickly,” he said.

The air ship made several demonstration flights for reporters Friday at the British Waterloo Lines base near Podujeva. Its use in Kosova will mark the first time a blimp has ever been used in mine-clearing operations, according to Paul Bishop, the Mineseeker project director for Britain’s Defense Evaluation and Research Agency.

Bishop says the blimp will eliminate the need for time-consuming surveys on the ground. “If you’ve got to have somebody go up and clear a path inch by inch, it’s very difficult, Bishop said, “the Mineseeker saves a lot of time and resources.”

Bishop also said blimps are safer than helicopters for conducting aerial mine surveys. “It doesn’t produce air pushed down, like a helicopter does,” Bishop said, “therefore it doesn’t cause a risk of setting off mines underneath it.”  Bishop says this is especially true in forested areas containing trip-wire mines, where the breeze of a passing helicopter disturbs branches and trips the mines.

Officials say the Mineseeker has arrived at an important time, since funding for their multi-year operation may run out. “We don’t have any money for next year as yet,” Flanagan said. His project is financed by donors, and “you can only hold donor interest for so long,” Flanagan said.  So far, $7.4 million has been spent on mine clearing operations in Kosova in the past 18 months. The Mineseeker blimp is being funded in part by Virgin Atlantic Airways, whose corporate logo appears on the tail fins.

Injuries caused by mines have been on the increase, according to officials, as Kosovars head into hillside forests to chop wood for winter heating. “Particularly along the border,” Flanagan said, “there are a number of people who are sporting injuries from mines.  We’ve had a spate of accidents. The casualty rate has gone up.”

Earlier this week, officials said they were worried someone might try to shoot the blimp down, for fear it was being used to spy on people. At the British camp where the craft is based, though, Flanagan said the ship can absorb 18 bullet holes and remain aloft. “It just leaks a little bit of helium,” Flanagan said.

The craft has giant “UN” letters near the front on each side. It will be in Kosova for about six weeks. (terry fitzpatrick)

A Different Kind of Air War

Officials Fear Public Will Shoot Down Mine-seeking Blimp
PRISHTINA (KosovaLive) -- A large white blimp will soon be making low-level sweeps over Kosova, equipped with radar and video equipment to locate Serb land mines and NATO cluster bombs. The “Mineseeker” air ship is considered the latest technological advancement in detecting dangerous explosives. John Flanagan, program director of the Mine Action Coordination Center, says the craft will help return farm fields and other lands back to productive use.
However, Flanagan is concerned people may think the blimp is being used to monitor criminal activity and will try to shoot it down.
“We’re not there to spy on people,” Flanagan told reporters Wednesday, saying the blimp “will not be used as a law enforcement tool.”
Officials will demonstrate the air ship to reporters on Friday in Podujevo. After testing, the craft will head to southern and western Kosova, where the greatest concentration of unexploded mines and bombs still remains.
Flannigan said the campaign to eradicate explosives is going “extremely well,” with specialists having cleared 12,000 land mines and 5,500 cluster bombs so far. He predicted Kosova will be virtually mine-free by December 2001. (terry fitzpatrick)

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