VILNIUS - Hundreds of sailors from ten countries will be scouring Lithuanian territorial waters in coming days as Open Spirit 2007, the largest mine-hunting exercise to take place on the Baltic Sea this year, gets underway.
From Aug. 31 to Sept. 10, approximately 1,000 servicemen working aboard 19 military ships will participate in the operation, which aims to clear Lithuanian waters of mines and other hazardous devices left over from World Wars I and II.
Now in its 11th year, Open Spirit is the largest naval mine counter-measures (NMCM) operation on the Baltics. The multinational operation includes a list of NATO members and countries in the Partnership for Peace program, specifically Belgium, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Latvia, Poland, France, Russia, Sweden, and Germany.
A fleet of 19 warships will cruise at a distance of 20 kilometers from the coastline in an area stretching from Palanga to the southernmost tip of Nida.
Lithuania will be taking part using its two mine-sweeping vessels, the Suduvis and the Kursis, each of which carries a crew of 45.
Lithuanian Navy spokesman Ramunas Kazerskas told The Baltic Times the country's sailors are well-trained and he looks forward to carrying out a successful operation on the Baltic Sea.
"On our side [Lithuanian Navy], we are very happy to make the Baltic Sea more clear. It is a very important thing for the Lithuanian Navy and for all the Baltic countries as well," Kazerskas said.
Another goal of the exercise is to polish the skills of ship personnel and promote mutual understanding and cooperation among the countries, according to a Ministry of Defense press release.
"There are ships from different countries, but we are operating under one unit, one body. This cooperation in is crucial because we are in the NATO and trying to do everything together. As we normally say '1+1 = 3,'" Kazerskas added.
Like most countries, Lithuania has few mine-sweeping specialists and does not have a mine-sweeping training center, however NATO operates institutions throughout Europe where sailors can train for these kinds of high-risk situations.
"It's a huge job and it needs a lot of qualified people ... Normally, the [level of] danger depends on the nature around the mine," Kazerskas said.
In the deep waters, on board ship sonars and dialysis equipment detects suspected mines and a robot destroys the object using an underwater explosive, he explained. In shallow waters, the Lithuanian Navy sends diver teams to specific areas.
Approximately 80,000 underwater mines were laid off the coast of Baltic countries during WWII and throughout the Cold War. Lithuania has fewer mines than Latvia and Estonia because it has a straighter coastline and the water is deep, Kazerskas said.
More than 100 explosive devices left over from the two world wars have been detected and eliminated in Lithuania's commercial and territorial waters in mine clearing operations since 2006.