Albania clears ammunition caches 20 years after mass violence

Albania clears ammunition caches 20 years after mass violence
By bne IntelliNews July 18, 2017

The Albanian army has completed clearing operations at two sites in the south of the country, Kordhoce and Picar, that were full of dangerous ammunition, the defence ministry said on July 18.

At the end of the cold war, heavily militarised Albania was awash with ammunition, and cuts to the armed forces budget from 1992 meant the country no longer had enough safe storage facilities. Ammunition depots were then looted in the mass violence that erupted in 1997 after thousands of Albanians lost their life savings in fake pyramid investment schemes. Since then, Tirana has been struggling to safely dispose of its obsolete weaponry and avoid allowing it to fall into the hand of arms traffickers or terrorists. 

The hazards caused by this situation were tragically illustrated by the deaths of four soldiers and serious injuries to 14 more in an explosion in Picar at the height of the violence in 1997. Nine years later, a huge explosion at the ex-military ammunition depot in the village of Gërdec, near Tirana, killed at least 26 people and destroyed hundreds of houses.

According to a report from the Italian Atlantic Committee, as of 1992 the Albanian armed forces had more than 194,000 tonnes of ammunition in 955 depots at 182 locations. This included locally produced ammunition as well as imports from Russia (between 1945 and 1960) and China (1961-1976). At the time, around 95% of the ammunition was more than 40 years old — more than double the average shelf life of 15-20 years. This posed a grave threat to the Albanian population, especially since housing has since been built close to a number of the storage facilities. 

Now, the clearing operation at hazardous sites is being conducted by the Albanian army in cooperation with the humanitarian organisation Norwegian People’s Aid and with financial support from the US government, the defence ministry said in a statement on July 18.

Defense Minister Mimi Kodheli stressed the importance of the Albanian army in cleaning sites contaminated with hazardous ammunition.

"The ministry of defence is at the helm of this process and continues to be the main contributor to the fight against the phenomenon that endangers the lives of Albanian citizens every day,” Kodheli said. 

“Immediately after obtaining the financial support needed by our partners, it was possible to begin the work on clearing of the identified spots. Just recently, we turned the security of the Gërdec area residents, by removing it from the map as a dangerous area … The number of hot spots with UXO [unexploded ordnance] is currently reduced to four out of 19 identified. I hope that the financial support will continue until the elimination of the remaining hot spots.”

The operations in Korhoce and Picar lasted for eight and 10 months, respectively. A total of 52,000 square metres of land were cleared of thousands of mortals, grenades and other ammunition.

The remaining dangerous sites are located in the Sinanaj area in Tepelene, Jube-Sukth in Durres and Burrel. All the sites are expected to be cleaned by the end of 2018.