An international centre to train military personnel in demining techniques has opened in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. The first 140 Kenyan military deminers are due to be deployed in southern Sudan later this year.
The International Mine Action Training Centre (IMATC) was set up by the British government, at a cost of £3.5 million (US $6.7 million), on land provided by the Kenyan Department of Defence. Five-week courses on manual demining, mine awareness and route clearance will be run by British and Kenyan officers.
The IMATC Commandant, Lt-Col Tim Wildish, said its founding was a continuation of training done over the last four years. "The British have trained Kenyan engineers to carry out humanitarian demining in Eritrea. This has been an enormously successful programme," he told IRIN on Monday.
Wildish said his predecessors had seen an opportunity "to expand that training remit by establishing this permanent facility, so that we can do more of that training with Kenyans and other countries."
The location of the the IMATC was carefully chosen, said Wildish. "Kenya is a neutral country in the region — [which is] very, very important when you are talking about training the Sudanese," he told IRIN.
Although the Kenyan army is responsible for security at the centre, Wildish emphasised that the training was purely for humanitarian purposes: "We are not training anyone for any sort of military advantage - there is no mine warfare in what we do at all."
Moreover, it is hoped that non-military organisations will become involved in future. "We are very happy to train NGOs or any other organisation that is operating in a mine-affected region," Wildish said, adding that "we are very keen to get the UN involved."
Other plans for the facility include courses in disaster management, peace support, medical training and counter-terrorism techniques.
Lt Ann Nasongo, of the Kenyan army engineers corps, is the first female Kenyan soldier to train as a humanitarian deminer. She told IRIN that she was eager to work in southern Sudan.
"I have always had an interest in mines and demining as a way of making the land productive once more," explained Nasongo, who will also become the first woman to command a demining team.
Asked whether she found demining challenging, Nasongo said: "Life in the army is a matter of life and death, so one has to be very careful."
Although dummy mines are used for most of the training, trainees will handle live mines during the last week of the course, to give them "a feel of live ones," according to Lt-Col Boniface Ngulutu, the IMATC's deputy commandant.
The 140 Kenyan deminers being trained for the southern Sudan mission are due to complete the course on 18 March. They will then undergo a pre-deployment training package before they can start their humanitarian demining operations.
In May, 100 Sudanese deminers will begin their training — 50 from government forces and 50 from the SPLA. At the same time, the first half of a Kenyan company due to be deployed in Eritrea will begin the course. The second half of that company will begin training in July.
Other activities planned for the IMATC include the training of Somali police and Ugandan soldiers. The Somalis have requested instruction in explosives and ordnance disposal operations, which could take place in June or October this year, according to Wildish.
The Ugandans are expected to take the standard demining course later in the year, and it is hoped that students from Nigeria, Senegal and possibly Rwanda will follow suit.
A request for training from the Egyptians to clear mines in their country is under discussion. "There is a problem there because Egypt has not signed the Ottawa Convention, and whether or not we train someone who has not signed that convention is questionable," explained Wildish, referring to the 1997 UN Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, which was ratified by 144 countries.
In December, delegates from around the world adopted a declaration renewing their commitment to rid the world of the weapons. At the summit in Kenya, country representatives also endorsed a comprehensive five-year plan aimed at expediting the clearance and destruction of landmines.
Donors wishing to help the centre could do so by sponsoring courses, supplying or sponsoring equipment, providing manpower or contributing funds to meet some of the running costs, Wildish added.