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Monday, March 24

Mine hunters clearing waterway so that humanitarian aid can begin

By William H. McMichael | Navy Times

ABOARD THE CARRIER USS CONSTELLATION IN THE PERSIAN GULF - Navy mine hunters were working Monday to clear the Khawr az Zubayr waterway of danger so humanitarian relief efforts can begin as quickly as possible.

By late Monday, they had found more than 104 mines stored on boats and a barge and were still counting a cache discovered Sunday in a warehouse in Umm Qasr, the port where the aid will enter southern Iraq. Gen. Tommy Franks said about half the channel to that port already had been cleared.

"A number of humanitarian assistance ships are loaded and will begin to deliver needed humanitarian assistance - food, water, medicine - to Iraqis within the next few days,'' Franks said. The aid will flow from Umm Qasr and make its way to Basra, southern Iraq's largest city.

"I think that what you will find is that the people of Basra will, in the days ahead, be able to have more access to food and more access to water than they have had in decades. I believe within a few days you'll see that occur in Umm Qasr," he said.

Rear Adm. Barry M. Costello, commander of the Constellation Carrier Battle Group, said the mine hunting operation will "judiciously walk up the waterway and make sure it is clear" so that the provisions will get to Umm Qasr safely. However, Costello said that not every mine would be cleared."In your best efforts of mine warfare, you're never going to get to a 100 percent confidence level that you have eliminated all possible mines," he said. But if the mine ships can continue "cutting a swath" through the waterway, "then they can clear that waterway to the port over the next couple of days."

The most difficult searches will take place in the silt and mud along the port itself. Each day brings only a few hours of low tides and relaxed currents that allow for an extensive search of the pier areas, he said.

"It's slow and boring warfare," said Costello. "To do it thoroughly, you have to have patience."

Three helicopters flew up and down the Khawr az Zubayr, using mine-hunting sonar and towing large floating sleds in an effort to disturb the waters enough to set off any Iraqi mines already in place. The helicopters also flew into Umm Qasr for the first time since U.S.-led land forces invaded Iraq on Friday, helping to clear the port and support troops already occupying the city, Costello said.

Costello said his greatest concern now is "what we don't know."

Personnel found paint chips and markings on the pilot boats suggesting that some mines may have been deployed and replaced on board by others. That, along with the mines and their deployment, showed "there was clear intention by the Iraqis to mine this waterway to preclude that humanitarian assistance from coming up," Costello said.

The operation is a combined effort by Navy and British anti-mine and support ships, and by U.S., British and Australian navy explosives and diving teams.