Chile begun last Friday de-mining operations in a strategic area of Tierra del Fuego, the first chapter of a project to free the area from the 130.000 antipersonnel and anti tank mines dating back thirty years in the peak of tension with Argentina.
The Chilean Army Fifth Division responsible for the Austral Military Region with a team of 29 experts will be working until the end of next March uncovering 5.485 mines buried in three areas of Bahia Azul 180 kilometers north of Punta Arenas and considered a natural entry to Chilean Tierra del Fuego.
The fields have double fencing, are clearly signaled and the mines mapped so the task naturally dangerous should anyhow be less stressing.
An Engineers Battalion from the Chilean Army has been training for years both in United States and Spain for the clearance operation and 29 of those experts in locating, deactivating and destroying the mines will be doing the job.
"Although at the time it was necessary to plant the mines, today we're in an opposite position, de-mining and playing hard for peace and life", said General Ricardo Hargreaves, Commander of the Fifth Division.
The official ceremony last Friday in the camp next to the mined fields was headed by Mayor Eugenia Mancilla, commanders of the three services with HQ in Punta Arenas, Carabineros and two observers, one from the European Union and a second from the Mined Zones Information Office.
Major Fernando Osses from the de-mining team revealed that besides the regular maintenance of the mined fields and signaling, the Chilean Army Fifth Region has destroyed 72.6000 anti personnel mines which it had in stock, "this in keeping with the Ottawa Treaty which was supported and signed by Chile".
The current Project has an estimated cost of 1.75 million US dollars of which the EU is granting 1.2 million; the United Nations Development Program 66.000 and the Chilean Armed Forces the remaining 470.000 US dollars.
The clearance and destruction cost per mine is estimated between 300 and 1.000 US dollars, which includes the camp and insurance for all personnel.
Major Osses also revealed that in the Army's Fifth Region jurisdiction there are 133 mined fields, of which 104 in the proximity of Punta Arenas; 13 in Puerto Natales and 16 in Chilean Tierra del Fuego. Another 17 mined fields are in the Third Naval Zone in the islands of Nueva, Picton, Freycinet and Cape Horn.
However Bahía Azul and Faro Mendez were chosen as the first step because of the intense traffic between Chile and Argentina.
The total number of explosives in the area is made up of 3.642 anti personnel mines and 1.843 anti tank mines.
Setting up the Army's engineers' outpost plus a quarry for the destruction of the mines cost a quarter of a million US dollars, plus 100.000 US dollars for a state of the art ambulance for emergency evacuations.
Chilean experts fear the greatest problem to face is the state in which the mines are after thirty years in the ground.
Work is done in teams of two but no longer than 25 minutes given the stress of the location and removal operation.
EU observer Joachim Roth said he was very satisfied with the way the Chilean Army was handling the de-mining operations for which the EU has significantly contributed.
"We're most satisfied because the Chilean Army in two years, half the time originally planned, has destroyed all antipersonnel mines stocks in the north and south of the country".
Mr. Roth also acts as a coordinator for the de-mining operation between the EU and Chile.
The other observer, Elir Rojas from the Mined Zones Information Office said that "we're sending a very potent signal of confidence to Argentina and we're convinced these are the right decisions regarding neighborly relations".