YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Hundreds of rescue workers from across Europe and the former Soviet Union began on Sunday a week-long disaster relief exercise held by NATO in Armenia.
The annual drills, organized by the Brussels-based Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center (EADRCC) jointly with the Armenian Emergencies Ministry, brought together some 700 participants representing 28 NATO member and partner states, including Russia, Turkey and Georgia. They are simulating a joint response to a powerful earthquake at a military base in the central Armenian town of Lusakert and nearby locations.
Under the exercise scenario, the earthquake hits the surrounding Kotayk region, resulting in numerous casualties and huge devastation and leading the Armenian government to ask for international assistance.
Armenia suffered a catastrophic earthquake in December 1988. It killed some 25,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless.
“This annual exercise is very important because it is held in Armenia for the first time,” Emergencies Minister Armen Yeritsian told journalists at the opening ceremony in Lusakert. “I thanked the NATO leadership for holding the annual exercise in the Republic of Armenia. I think that we have something to learn [from other countries.]”
“The Republic of Armenia has always been considered a disaster laboratory,” Yeritsian said. “We must be prepared to cope with all kinds of disasters.”
More than half of the exercise participants are Armenian rescuers and firefighters employed by Yeritsian’s ministry. Ten others represent neighboring Turkey, with which Armenia has no diplomatic relations.
With the Turkish-Armenian border remaining closed, the Turks had to travel to Armenia via Georgia. Turkish officials indicated in July that Ankara might temporarily reopen the frontier for the exercise. Officials in Yerevan dismissed such possibility as a public relations stunt.
The drills, which are due to end on Friday, reflect Armenia’s deepening ties with NATO under an “individual partnership action plan” launched in 2005. Yerevan has embarked on far-reaching defense reforms and joined NATO’s military missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan in tune with that plan. It has also hosted two NATO-led military exercises, most recently in September 2008.