Three HALO Trust Workers Killed in Artsakh

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STEPANAKERT — Three local employees of the HALO Trust, an organization tasked with demining land there, were killed by an explosion of an anti-tank landmine in Ghazanchi area of Artsakh on March 29.

Two others were seriously injured.

Those killed are Pavel Akopov, Samson Avanessian and Marat Petrossian. They were in a vehicle conducting minefield survey duties at the time.

Artsakh’s healthcare minister Karine Atayan personally visited the hospital to see the victims and the doctors.

According to a statement from HALO, “We are working closely with the local police and authorities and have called in external investigators to report on the full facts of the incident.”

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James Cowan, HALO’s CEO said: “Every day around the world, more than 8,000 HALO staff go to work in places where no one else can tread and this tragic incident throws into stark relief the dangers that they face and the importance of our work. Our colleagues were killed while working to make the land safe for the people of Nagorno Karabakh.”

Andrew Moore, HALO’s former regional director in charge of Artskh said on Monday, “We are conducting an investigation into the accident and this includes an external investigator. We don’t want to prejudge the outcome of this so we can’t say as yet what happened. What I can say is that the team that had the accident was conducting survey of areas to be cleared in the future — not mine clearance.”

He added that all work in Artsakh is currently suspended pending the outcome of the investigation.

Moore said that the two survivors — Aram Mkrtchyan and Garik Ghahriyan — are in hospital in Stepanakert and they are in stable condition. ‎”We are closely monitoring their progress and ensuring they get the best care. We have a HALO consulting physician equivalent (a UK-based doctor) in Stepanakert advising on treatment,” he said.

Since 2000, HALO has been the only agency clearing the minefields and cluster munition strikes in Artsakh. According to its website: “Mine clearance in Karabakh has not only greatly decreased the casualty rate but it has also allowed roads, schools, and housing to be built, water pipes to be laid, fields to be cultivated, livestock to be safely grazed, and people to go about their daily business without fear. The benefits of the clearance are tangible and the cleared land can be safely used in perpetuity.”

Between 2000-2016, The HALO Trust in Artsakh has destroyed 180,858 small arms ammunition, 48,572 units of “other explosive items,” 12,423 cluster bombs, 8,733 anti-personnel landmines, and 2,584 anti-tank landmines. HALO has cleared 88 percent of the territory’s minefields, with the goal to clear all landmines in Artsakh by 2020.

The organization held a very successful fundraiser in Winchester, Mass., in June 2017, during which they raised more than $200,000 for demining operations in Artsakh. (https://mirrorspectator.com/2017/06/22/soiree-raises-220000-for-clearing-landmines-in-karabakh/)

The goal of the gathering was to make sure that by the year 2020, Artsakh, one of the most heavily mined parts of the world, would be free of all mines.

U.S. Caucus on Armenian Issues Co-Chairs Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr. Jackie Speier, and David Valadao, House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member and Armenian Caucus Co-Vice Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, and Rep. Brad Sherman issued statements and paid tribute, reported the Armenian Assembly of America.

Pallone said: “While there is always a danger associated with removing unexploded ordnances, I am deeply saddened to hear the news of this terrible accident and offer my condolences to the families of these individuals. I hope investigators in Artsakh are able to quickly get to the bottom of what happened, and I hope these awful circumstances help to shed an international light on the vital work organizations like HALO Trust do around the world. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure demining activities are able to continue unimpeded and as safely as possible.”

Pallone visited Artsakh for the first time 20 years ago as part of an Armenian Assembly of America-sponsored delegation. The Congressman has returned to Artsakh a few times since his initial visit, where he learned firsthand about mine clearance in the region.

“I was deeply saddened to hear of the deaths of three HALO Trust workers, and injuries to two of their colleagues, while working to clear the Artsakh region of landmines. My heart goes out to the victims and their families and colleagues, all of whom are in my prayers. The people of Artsakh continue to suffer the devastating effects of war with the highest per capita incidence of landmine accidents in the world — a third of which involve children. The courage and sacrifice of these ultimate Samaritans should serve as a reminder to us all that we have much more to do to make this region safe, and I pledge to continue my support of the HALO Trust and the Artsakh region in honor of their memory,” Speier added.

Valadao stated: “My heart goes out to those killed and injured by the explosion in Nagorno-Karabakh. These individuals have dedicated their work to ensuring the safety of others and their sacrifice will never be forgotten. This tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the ever present danger in the region. We must continue our work to restore these communities so they may live without fear of mine-related accidents.”

Last September, Valadao traveled to Artsakh as part of a Congressional Delegation, where he met with the HALO Trust staff to learn more about mine clearance along the borders. Earlier that month, Valadao spearheaded a bipartisan amendment along with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), Pallone, Speier and Schiff, to ensure continued funding for de-mining projects in Artsakh. This amendment was adopted as part of consideration of H.R. 3354, which consolidated numerous Fiscal Year 2018 appropriations bills.

Schiff stated: “I’m deeply saddened by the death of three employees of the HALO Trust who were performing demining work in Nagorno Karabakh. I am proud of the support the United States has provided in removing minefields from civilian areas in Artsakh, and this tragedy shows once again why that work is both so dangerous and yet such an important humanitarian undertaking.”

“I extend my deepest condolences to the victims’ families and the entire HALO Trust community. Today’s events highlight the need for robust support of demining efforts in Artsakh, so that these deadly explosives do not take additional lives. We thank the victims for their contributions to this important cause,” Sherman said.

Armenpress reported that HALO Trust Artsakh Program Manager Michael Newton told Hayastani Hanrapetutyun newspaper that the tragic incident in Artsakh once again proves the difficulties people face while demining territories and making the land safe for the population.

The incident is being scrutinized and the public will be informed about the investigation.

“We are closely cooperating with the law enforcement agencies and the government of Artsakh. We also invited external investigators expecting to receive more complete information. Experts of the staff of our organization risk their lives in different parts of the world in carrying out difficult work. The tragic incident which took place in Artsakh once again proves the difficulties people face while making the land safer for the population. All parties of the conflict should realize this and not allow new war escalations and tragedies at the border,” Newton said.

  • Alin K. Gregorian

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