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Wednesday, 20 September, 2000, 17:45 GMT 18:45 UK
Airship joins search for mines
UN airship
The airship is making its way to Kosovo
An airship normally used to film major sporting events is heading to Kosovo to help in the search for unexploded land mines.

The United Nations has drafted in the 135ft helium-filled craft, called Mineseeker, which will be fitted with television cameras, hi-tech infra red sensors and radar.

A UN mines expert will use the airship to search for signs of cluster bombing and minefields.

Mineseeker is part of a joint venture by the British Ministry of Defence's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) and the Telford-based Lightship Group, which is part-owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

As much as 80% of the area currently classified as mined doesn't have mines in it - the difficulty is telling which bits

David Partridge
Lightship Group
David Partridge, Lightship Group's project director, said the airship, one of 16 owned by the company, had been diverted from an advertising assignment in Germany.

"We have got one operating at the Olympics in Sydney at the moment," he said.

"In the same way that a camera can zoom in on an athlete at the start of a race there, we will be able to zoom in on something in Kosovo and tell whether it is part of a strike or just a Coke can."

Mr Partridge said an airship offered a much more stable platform to search for mines than a helicopter.

'Locate unexploded bombs'

"We can see the impact of a cluster bomb from the air - some of the ordnance will have failed to explode and if we can locate it people on the ground can make it safe," he said.

Mineseeker is travelling to Kosovo through France and Italy and is due to begin its operations in October.

It will be used for six weeks by the UN's Mine Action Co-ordination Centre.

Mr Partridge said: "The UN specifically requested we deploy an airship as quickly as possible before the winter because snow will make our job more difficult."

"As much as 80% of the area currently classified as mined doesn't have mines in it - the difficulty is telling which bits."

Sir Richard Branson
Sir Richard Branson: Sponsoring the airship
"If we can release that land and allow people to use it then we can start reconstruction," Mr Partridge said.

DERA project director Dr Paul Bishop said: "I'm sure it's the first time anyone has used an airship for humanitarian mine action.

"Children are still picking these things up with disastrous consequences."

A KFOR spokesman in Kosovo said: "The hazard from mines and unexploded ordnance is very serious and KFOR welcomes any initiative that helps it fulfil its mandate of providing a safe and secure environment."

The Mineseeker airship will be paid for by sponsors, principally Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic airline.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman said: "It's a humanitarian initiative - proving that this system will work far outweighs the cost."

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See also:

23 Jun 99 | Europe
The deadly debris of war
22 Jun 99 | Europe
'Widespread' use of landmines
19 Jun 99 | Europe
More refugees injured by mines
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