The rupture of the dam pays a new threat: the out-of-control mines carried by the water | International

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Can an anti-tank mine weighing ten kilos capable of destroying armored vehicles weighing several tons travel through a river bed? The answer is yes, explains Andy Duncan, Red Cross weapons contamination coordinator in Ukraine, in a context in which water has flooded fields and villages after bursting a strategic dam on the war front in Kherson on Tuesday. “Like an avalanche in the Alps, all these mines have been swept away and they are going to end up down the river. So they are not going to be floating, ”he details during an interview with EL PAÍS in his office in kyiv, the capital.

If before it was known more or less where these minefields could be located, due to the positions of the troops, now all reference has been lost and some may end up buried under several meters of sediment, so locating and recovering them will suppose "an additional problem". , according to Duncan. And not only that, he adds, but everything happens in a country where active remains from World War I and II continue to appear from time to time. This reference to events from more than a century ago serves to understand the dimension of what happened this week and the time that these mines can continue to pose a threat to the population.

The state emergency services, which centralize the demining and cleaning of war remains in Ukraine, calculate that some 174,000 square kilometers are contaminated, more than 25% of the 603,000 square kilometers of the country, an area comparable to twice the size of Andalusia.

Kherson was already the most heavily mined region in Ukraine along with Kharkov when the Nova Kakhovka dam on the Dnieper blew up on Tuesday, where each army occupies one of the banks. It is a strategic enclave near the mouth of the Dnieper River. The destruction of the dam has caused the flooding of dozens of towns and thousands of hectares around the front line, where fighting does not stop even to rescue or assist the few remaining inhabitants. These explosive devices placed as defenses by the military - both sides use them - are now underwater and, in some cases, out of control along the widened channel.

The danger comes, especially, from anti-tank mines such as those used since World War II and affects both the western side of the Dnieper, under Ukrainian control, and the eastern side, occupied by the Russians, details Andy Duncan. In this sense, he believes that the floods have affected the eastern bank to a greater extent because the land is lower than sea level. Despite the restrictions imposed by Moscow, Red Cross staff are also available in that area. The Kiev authorities estimate that the flood has forced a Russian withdrawal of between 5 and 15 kilometers from the positions they occupied before the dam burst. However, the disaster does not seem to have altered the plans for the offensive planned months ago by the Ukrainian army against Russian positions, which is experiencing its most intense clashes in the neighboring region of Zaporizhia.

The lack of control over an unknown number of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines will make it difficult to return to normality for decades, warn both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the main world demining organization, Halo Trust, which has had to suspend their work in seven minefields that have been flooded. “The torrent of water that swept down the lower Dnieper River was powerful enough to dislodge land mines and, in some cases, cause the detonation of 10-kilo anti-tank mines,” the Halo Trust said in a statement on Friday.

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The kyiv government and the occupation authorities established by Russia in part of Ukraine have also warned of the increased risks. Oleh Kiper, governor of Odessa, a region on the shores of the Black Sea, called on the population on Thursday to remain on guard and away from the coast and beaches before the arrival of mines and unexploded ordnance along with trees, remains of houses and animals dead from the flood. Nova Kajovka is about 60 kilometers from the mouth of the Dnieper, while the Odesa coastline is more than 200 kilometers away. Citizens are posting videos on social media of roof remains and furniture stranded on the Odesa coast.

Meanwhile, the local authorities of Kherson reported this Friday that the water level has stopped rising. But that will not allow the location of this scattered weaponry for the moment, since this task cannot be undertaken while the area continues to be a battlefront, acknowledges Duncan, who previously worked at the Halo Trust. “This is a humanitarian and ecological catastrophe and the presence of huge numbers of landmines magnifies the risk to civilians in the area. We will not know the exact number of landmines displaced until the waters recede," said Mike Newton, head of Halo in Ukraine in statements provided to the media by this organization.

In the short term, the ICRC must map where the mines were likely to be and where they could have ended up due to the force of the current to make estimates prior to the cleanup work, "because neither party is going to say it," he says. Duncan. In the long term, when the water recedes, "detailed analysis will begin" of those locations, but "only when the fighting in that area ceases."

Anti-tank mines planted by the Army on a farm in Shestakove, in the Kharkiv region.Luis Vega

“The breach of the Nova Kajovka dam will put lives at risk due to the density of minefields that have gone downstream and are now under water,” the Halo Trust warned in a June 8 statement, referring to the Ingulets River, a tributary of the Dnieper, where their teams have been forced to stop demining. "Whether the mines have been moved or not, clearing the area will take much longer and pose a greater danger to our deminers and the local population," the text added.

The military had placed anti-tank mines on the banks of the Ingulets during the Russian occupation of part of the Mykolaiv region, neighboring Kherson and the battlefront for long months in 2022. A counteroffensive by local troops drove the Russian invaders away from that area. in November last year. The floods now prevent the work of clearing these fields by the Halo Trust, which details that of the nearly 5,000 mines located in Mikolaiv since that month, 464 were placed on the banks of rivers. These mines pose a "mortal risk" for civilians in the area who are engaged in agriculture, livestock or river fishing, warns this organization.

“In a war, people don't like to give away information about where they put the mines. And until the need for the minefield has disappeared, they are not going to show their favor”, concludes Andy Duncan, from the Red Cross. And flooded Kherson, where flood-scattered mines have heightened the threat, remains the front line today.

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