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Azerbaijan: Locals Worry About Health Effects Of Radar

By Ilgar Rasul

QABALA, Azerbaijan; June 8, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The locals of Qabala (Gabala) call it "the dragon." When the radar station began operating in 1985, they say it made so much noise it sounded as if it was roaring.

It is an stark anomaly amid the lush, rolling hills of northern Azerbaijan -- but one that is accepted.

Cattle graze contentedly around the radar station. And in a local cafe nearby, locals sit underneath a weeping willow tree, placidly drinking tea.

The Qabala radar station has suddenly made international headlines, after Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to share it with the United States for the proposed U.S. missile shield.

The base, which has a range of 6,000 kilometers, has the power to monitor missiles launched from Asia and Africa.

But most locals were unaware of the news that, thousands of miles away in Germany, Presidents Putin and Bush were discussing Qabala's dragon.

It's an issue that suddenly puts Azerbaijan on the map. But for the locals, the issue is not their country's global status, but questions of health and safety.

Health Concerns

Many of them say that there are worrying signs the radar is having a negative impact on the local residents and nature -- even as they say that if anyone is going to use the radar, it should be Azerbaijan.

"The trees are drying up, due to this [radar]. We have many children born with abnormalities. It even effects the livestock, " one man said. "If you ask my opinion, it should be up to the leadership of my country. If you have to use it, why can't we use it ourselves. Our state is economically strong, so why don’t we buy it and use it ourselves?"

In 1991, an Azerbaijani government commission said the radar presented a risk to human health and the local ecology.

Some suggested the study was an effort by a newly independent Azerbaijan to cast criticism on Moscow, which had been responsible for its design and operation in the Soviet era.

No independent studies have been done on the effects of the radar. And in fact, many Qabala residents are sanguine about possible health risks.

"I live 500 meters away from the station. I don't see any damage. In previous years we witnessed the trees drying up, but in recent years we haven't seen so much impact. Over there, we are grazing cattle around the station. It doesn't bother us," one man said.

Early-Warning System

Construction work started on the radar station in 1976 and it has been operational since 1985. The radar was previously known as the Daryal Analytical Information Center.

It forms part of Russia's early-warning system, able to track ballistic missiles which are fired from Asia and parts of Africa.

Russia has a number of these radar bases dotted around the former Soviet Union -- in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Armenia.

Qabala is staffed mainly by 900 Russian troops, from the Federal Space Forces. The troops live in a nearby barracks.

Some locals seemed to hope that if the radar base was ever used by the Americans, it could bring jobs to this primarily agricultural community.

"Some local people are working in this station and they are paid well. But if the Americans are coming, maybe they will pay better. Maybe they will have jobs for us. And if the Americans would compensate [Azerbaijan for hosting the base], that would be even better," one man said.

Compensation Hopes

The question of compensation -- for the inconvenience of living next to the dragon -- is high on local people's minds.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians continued using the base for free, until, in 2002, a 10-year agreement was signed between the two countries.

Under the agreement, Russia leases the radar station from Azerbaijan for a reported $7 million a year. Moscow is also expected to pay a Baku compensation for lost rent from before the agreement was signed.

(Kenan Aliyev and Luke Allnutt contributed to this story.)

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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