Landmines in the Desert Sand: Nazi Landmines Block Egypt's Access to Oil and Gas

By Joachim Hoelzgen

German "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel and the British Eighth Army left behind hundreds of thousands of mines and unexploded shells in their North African battles of World War II. The explosive relics are hampering Egypt's access to untapped oil and gas reserves in the desert.

Egypt is one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. The unexploded ordnance left lying in its desert from World War II battles ranks the country right up there with Afghanistan on this dubious list. Every year, Bedouins and farmers come across unexploded mines and shells, and it's not uncommon for undiscovered bombs to explode amid retrieved scrap metal.

Some 22 million landmines and unexploded ordnance have lain hidden in the northwest of Egypt since World War II, Fathy El-Shazly, national project director for mine clearance and development at the Ministry of International Cooperation, told United Nations news service Irin.

Many of the mines are near the battlefield of El-Alamein, where the British Eighth Army forced the Africa Corps of "Desert Fox" Erwin Rommel to retreat all the way back to Tunisia. That war and today's peace lie close together in the no-man's-land of the desert. Anti-tank mines, anti-personnel mines and unexploded artillery shells block today's transportation routes.

Mines Blocking Access Natural Resources

The former battleground is a treasure trove of raw materials such as oil, natural gas and ore. Egypt used to be seen as a minor oil player but experts now estimate that 4.8 billion barrels of oil lie under the sands of the north west -- enough for the country to draw level with OPEC member Angola in terms of oil production.

One oil field near El Alamein has already been developed, and oil is being produced in the notorious Qattara Depression, avoided by the British and German forces during World War II because of its hazardous salt lakes, high cliffs and fine-powdered sand, all of which made the area impassable for military vehicles.

Egypt also has 1.94 trillion cubic meters of natural gas, which amounts to around 1.1 percent of global reserves, and an additional 0.38 trillion is estimated to be located in the northwest and the desert inland from the coast. Gas pipelines already run from two gas fields there to Alexandria. But mines are obstructing the search for more oil and gas.

So far, the military has only removed 2.9 million mines and unexploded shells from the core battle area, and the removal has ground to a halt due to a shortage of funds. "The northwest coast has great development potential; the area is one of the greatest promises for Egypt. But the mines deny access to a landmass of approximately 22 percent of the national territory," El-Shazly told Irin.

Mines Were a Key Tactic of Desert Warfare

Wherever the armies of the Axis powers and the Allies clashed in the deserts of North Africa, they tried to limit each other's mobility by laying minefields. Rommel ordered half a million mines to be laid at the coastal town of El Alamein, and the British reportedly laid even more. Most of them lie in the main site of the battle south of the coast and in the inland desert. Mines were also placed underneath debris and around coastal fortifications.

The region could have a flourishing future in tourism if it weren't for this explosive legacy. Egyptian billionaire Ibrahim Kamel, head of the Kato Group conglomerate, has already built an international airport at El Alamein as an entry point for European tourists. Kamel wants to build large hotels along a bay in the Mediterranean, and says the area could one day rival Egypt's Red Sea resorts. Charter aircraft from Britain already land at his airport, bringing tourists to the beaches and attractions west of El Alamein, for example in the provincial capital of Marsa Matruh.

The Egyptian government and the UN also have plans to boost tourism and farming in the region, especially for barley and vegetables . That would allow 1.5 million people to be moved to the northwest from the overcrowded Nile valley -- if only it weren't for the mines.

Munitions expert El-Shazly is now appealing to the powers that fought World War II to return to the desert with special mine detecting equipment and clean up their mess. A new mine clearing program is due to be launched this year, and the government plans to improve care for victims of mine explosions. More than 8,000 people have been injured or killed by German, Italian and British ordnance since the end of World War II.

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